June 18, 2021
From The Anarchist Library

To the hundreds of thousands or billions
engaged in building the new society
within the shell of the old.


“Carson’s writing is always as incisive and informed, as it is mobilizing and bold. Like
Homebrew Industrial Revolution, Exodus will be the source to turn to for historical
insight and contextualizing the maker movement in the political economy of today.”


researcher on peer production, Aalto University

“Kevin Carson is the kind of thinker I appreciate most-bold, pioneering, rigorous,
fiercely independent, focused on grand challenges of the day, humble before the
complexities of the world, but willing to grapple deeply with them. His latest book,
Exodus, perfectly exemplifies this. It puts forward a theory of post-capitalist transition
with ordinary people as the main revolutionary protagonists and backs it up with
nearly 500 pages of detailed argumentation. It’s a passionate, but reasoned call to
recognize the agency that all of us already possess and the new possibilities of the day.
The result is illuminating, inspiring, practical, and thus perfect medicine for today.”


Executive Director, Shareable

“For all those interested in the assault on working class agency, the decline of
proletarianism, the network revolution, resistance organisation debates, and the
nature of post-capitalist transition, this book is absolutely unmissable!”

researcher on new communications media and resistance movements, Leicester University


Old Left models of postcapitalist transition based on organizational mass, hierarchy,
and revolutionary seizure of power are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Meanwhile, in
the interstices of a dying system in hackerspaces and garage shops, neighborhood
gardens, community land trusts, and municipalist movements from Jackson to Rojava
to Barcelona, people are busy creating the building blocks of a new system within the
interstices of a dying one. Exodus explores a model of social, political, and economic
revolution driven not by violent upheaval but instead, by the process of fostering new
patterns of flourishing social interaction within the shell of an increasingly brittle, unsustainable, and unjust status quo. In this book, Kevin Carson draws on his earlier insights
regarding micromanufacturing technology,
ephemeralization, communication, and stigmergic organization to deepen our understanding
of post-capitalist transition. Examining a broad
range of contemporary trends and employing a
diverse array of theoretical perspectives,
Carson helps us open our eyes to the possibility
of a more humane and flourishing world.


On the whole, this is a typical Carson book. Like all my books since
Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, it’s to a large extent a direct outgrowth of my
earlier books insofar as it addresses in depth issues which I was limited to treating on only in passing in the previous books. In this case, Exodus applies the
findings of The Homebrew Industrial Revolution regarding micromanufacturing
technology and ephemeralization, and those concerning networked communications and stigmergic organization in The Desktop Regulatory State, to the
questions of political organization entailed in post-capitalist transition. Three
of my research papers at Center for a Stateless Society were much more limited
preliminary investigations into some of the same subject matter: “Techno-Utopianism, Counterfeit and Real,” “The Fulcrum of the Present Crisis,” and
“Libertarian Municipalism.”

Like the previous books, it is a product of its time, in the sense that I was enthusiastically immersed in the vital events of the day during the writing process.
As with Homebrew and Desktop, I was always two steps behind the news related to
my research, and eventually had to draw a line beyond which I would not incorporate any new material if I was to complete the book at all. And as with the previous books, it was already becoming dated before I wrote down the last word.

Although Homebrew and Desktop are both considerably dated in many regards, I think much of the analysis is still relevant and holds up fairly well. I hope
the same will be true of Exodus.

In any case, if you liked the previous books, perhaps you will also like this
one—or at least find it somewhat useful. I hope so.

Many thanks to my friend Gary Chartier, of La Sierra University, for formatting the manuscripts into a finished book that’s actually pleasing to the eyes.

January 12, 2021

Part One: Background

Chapter One: The Age of Mass and Maneuver

I. A Conflict of Visions

I should note, at the outset, that in this section I deal with two
dichotomies which are theoretically distinct, but tend to heavily
overlap in practice. The first is between interstitial visions of change
based on creating the building blocks of the future society within the
present one, and insurrectionary or ruptural visions based on seizure or
conquest of the state and other commanding institutions of the existing
society. The second is between organizational forms modeled on
prefiguring the future society, and organizational forms (defined mainly
by mass, hierarchy and the central imposition of discipline) aimed
primarily at the strategic requirements of seizing power.

In the nineteenth century, prefigurative or interstitial visions
coexisted with visions centered on mass-based institutions and
insurrection. But even the dominant anarchist schools to some extent
emphasized the role of organizational mass and insurrection in the
transition process.

Following a struggle with the Bakuninists in the First International,
the Marxists emerged as the dominant school of socialism — a school that
was both insurrectionary and envisioned the seizure of state power as a
tool for transformation. (Not that Bakunin himself did not advocate a
revolutionary strategy focused on mass and organization; he just saw the
immediate abolition of the state as entailed in the act of seizing it.)

Marx and Engels from the beginning stressed that the transition to
socialism was a thing to be carried out after the working class’s
capture of the state, with the proletarian state playing a central role
in carrying out the transition.

In the Communist Manifesto, the first step in the transition to
communism was the seizure of political power, followed by (in Mihailo
Markovic’s words)

a series of steps which eventually revolutionize the entire mode of
production…. [In Marx’s] view the proletariat ‘is compelled by the
force of circumstances’ to use [the state] in order to sweep away by
force the old conditions of production, classes generally, and its own
supremacy as a class…. On the other hand, reformists (e.g. Bernstein)
rejected the idea of a political revolution since they thought the very
economic process of capitalism led spontaneously towards

As Marx and Engels themselves described it, “the first step in the
revolution by the working class”

is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the
battle of democracy.

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree,
all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of
production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised
as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as
rapidly as possible.

Besides revolutionary policies aimed at smashing bourgeois power, like
confiscating the property of emigres and rebels, and economic policies
aimed at gradually destroying the economic power of the bourgeoisie
(e.g. a progressive income tax and abolition of inheritance), they also
envisioned a large-scale, centrally organized program of economic
reconstruction including:

  1. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a
    national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

  2. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the
    hands of the State.

  3. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the
    State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement
    of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

  4. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies,
    especially for agriculture.

  5. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual
    abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more
    equable distribution of the populace over the country.

In both the Manifesto and Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx
described a fairly lengthy process of constructing communism after the
working class captured control of the state. The Manifesto included a
detailed economic program that would have to be implemented over a
prolonged period.

As Markovic interpreted it, that specifically ruled out a long process
of evolutionary transition analogous to the transition from feudalism to

In contrast to bourgeois revolution which is an overthrow of the
political power of the aristocracy at the end of a long process
of growth of the capitalist economy and bourgeois culture within the
framework of feudal society, the seizure of political power from the
bourgeoisie is, according to Marx, only ‘the first episode’ of the
revolutionary transformation of capitalism into socialism. Marx…
distinguished between the lower phase of communism (a mixed
society which still lacks its own foundations) and its higher phase
(after the disappearance of the ‘enslaving of labour’ and of ‘the
antithesis between mental and physical labour’, when such abundance
would be attained that goods could be distributed to each ‘according to
his needs’).

Marx himself, in The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (a
collection of contemporary newspaper articles he had written analyzing
the Revolution of 1848), stressed the mutually determining character of
industrial capitalism and the proletariat in creating both the material
prerequisites of socialism and a revolutionary class capable of building

The development of the industrial proletariat is, in general,
conditioned by the development of the industrial bourgeoisie. Only under
its rule does the proletariat gain that extensive national existence
which can raise its revolution to a national one, and only thus does the
proletariat itself create the modern means of production, which become
just so many means of its revolutionary emancipation.

At its Hague Conference in 1872, under the influence of Marx and Engels,
the International Working Men’s Association adopted Article 7a which
called for the working class to achieve the “conquest of political
power” by “constituting itself into a political party, distinct from,
and opposed to all old parties formed by the propertied

And on the occasion of Marx’s death in 1883 Engels reiterated, as his
and Marx’s consistent position, that the proletariat must seize — as
“the only organisation the victorious working class finds ready-made for
use” — the state, the state being “the only organism by which [it] can…
carry out that economic revolution of society….”

The 1891 Erfurt Programme of the SDP, in whose drafting Kautsky played
the primary role, reiterated the themes of small businesses being
destroyed and capital concentrated into “colossal large enterprises,”
leaving as the only response “the transformation of the capitalist
private ownership of the means of production – land and soil, pits and
mines, raw materials, tools, machines, means of transportation — into
social property and the transformation of the production of goods into
socialist production carried on by and for society.” This was to be
accomplished through struggle by the working class; and it fell to the
Social Democratic Party “to shape the struggle of the working class into
a conscious and unified one.”

In his 1895 Introduction to The Class Struggles in France, Engels
framed the destruction of capitalism and creation of socialism as the
work of a mass proletarian “army,” based on “big industry” and giant
industrial centers.

History has proved us, and all who thought like us, wrong. It has made
it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at that
time [ie. 1848] was not, by a long way, ripe for the removal of
capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution
which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the Continent, has really
caused big industry for the first time to take root in France, Austria,
Hungary, Poland and, recently, in Russia, while it has made Germany
positively an industrial country of the first rank…. [T]oday a great
international army of Socialists, marching irresistibly on and growing
daily in number, organization, discipline, insight and assurance of
victory. If even this mighty army of the proletariat has still not
reached its goal, if, a long way from winning victory with one mighty
stroke, it has slowly to press forward from position to position in a
hard, tenacious struggle, this only proves, once and for all, how
impossible it was in 1848 to win social reconstruction by a simple
surprise attack.

Meanwhile the working class in Germany developed, as a model for the
working class throughout the industrialized world, the combination of
universal suffrage and a mass socialist party.

And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it
allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly
established, unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of votes it increased
in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of
their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it
accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all
hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion
for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity
as much as from untimely foolhardiness — if this had been the only
advantage we gained from the suffrage, then it would still have been
more than enough. But it has done much more than this. In election
agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in
touch with the mass of the people, where they still stand aloof from us;
of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our
attacks before all the people; and, further, it opened to our
representatives in the Reichstag a platform from which they could speak
to their opponents in Parliament and to the masses without, with quite
other authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings….

With this successful utilization of universal suffrage, an entirely new
mode of proletarian struggle came into force, and this quickly developed
further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of
the bourgeoisie is organized, offer still further opportunities for the
working class to fight these very state institutions. They took part in
elections to individual diets, to municipal councils and to industrial
courts; they contested every post against the bourgeoisie in the
occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had its say.
And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be
much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’
party, of the results of elections than of those of

Old fashioned revolutionary insurrections characterized by street
fighting and barricades were only successful a minority of the time even
in 1848, Engels observed. Developments in military technology since had
rendered them completely obsolete. Revolution by spontaneous
insurrection and street fighting was no longer feasible, and if it
played a part at all it would be in the later stages of a revolution
whose victory had already been largely secured through political

If the conditions have changed in the case of war between nations, this
is no less true in the case of the class struggle. The time of surprise
attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at
the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a
complete transformation of the social organization, the masses
themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what
is at stake, what they are going in for…. The history of the last
fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may
understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it
is just this work which we are now pursuing, and with a success which
drives the enemy to despair.

In the Latin countries, also, it is being more and more recognized that
the old tactics must be revised. Everywhere [the unprepared onslaught
has gone into the background, everywhere]
the German example of
utilizing the suffrage, of winning all posts accessible to us, has been
imitated…. Slow propaganda work and parliamentary activity are being
recognized here, too, as the most immediate tasks of the Party.

The German Social-Democracy, with its two and a half million voters, was
“the decisive ‘shock force’ of the international proletarian army.”
Its central task was to

conquer the greater part of the middle section of society, petty
bourgeois and small peasants, and grow into the decisive power in the
land, before which all other powers will have to bow, whether they like
it or not. To keep this growth going without interruption until of
itself it gets beyond the control of the ruling governmental

The working class would win by using legal methods, and avoiding being
drawn into premature street fighting. The only way the ruling class
would thwart the revolutionary project would be by itself resorting to
illegality and repression; and the proper strategy of the working class
was to so permeate the majority of society, mass political institutions
and the army that — as with the Christian permeation of Roman society —
by the time the ruling class resorted to full-scale repression, it would
be too late.

All this is not to say that Marx had no use for interstitial development
as such. For instance in his 1864 Inaugural Address to the International
Working Men’s Association, he praised the cooperative movement and
particularly the self-organized cooperative factories. Such factories
showed, “by deed,” that

production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern
science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters
employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need
not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion
against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf
labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to
disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a
ready mind, and a joyous heart.

Worker cooperatives were “transitional forms from the capitalist mode of
production to the associated one….” The growth of joint-stock
companies and the reduction of capitalists to rentiers, furthered by the
national credit system, illustrated the superfluity of industrial
capital to the actual management of industry. And the same national
credit system “equally offers the means for the gradual extension of
cooperative enterprises on a more or less national

Nevertheless Marx saw cooperatives mainly as a demonstration effect of
what was possible, and not as a primary approach to constructing
socialism within the interstices of the capitalist economy. Since in the
Inaugural Address he explicitly repudiated the cooptation of the
cooperative movement by pseudo-”socialist” efforts under the capitalist
state like those of LaSalle and Bismarck, the reference above to the
credit system is presumably a reference to the construction of socialism
by means of a credit system socialized by the socialist state, as per
the Manifesto. As an actual means of building socialism, Marx made it
clear, the cooperative movement could only be effective to the extent
that it was subordinated to the political effort to gain control of the
state. Cooperatives,

however, [extraneous comma sic] excellent in principle and however
useful in practice, co-operative labor, if kept within the narrow circle
of the casual efforts of private workmen, will never be able to arrest
the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses,
nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their

LaSalle, the founder of the first socialist party in Germany — which was
later incorporated into the SPD and had some influence on its first
Gotha Program — envisioned working through Bismarck’s state to socialize
the economy. His party, the General German Workers’ Association, was
amalgamated into the Social Democratic Party and constituted a LaSallean
wing alongside the Marxist wing of Liebknecht and Bebel, and his ideas
had some influence on the wording of the Gotha Program adopted at its
first congress in 1875. Although he took a more or less Hegelian view of
the state as a force representing society as a whole, he shared with
Marxists the idea that control of the state was essential to
implementing a socialist program.

This was not true only of the Marxists and LaSallians. Many anarchists
and decentralists also put considerable emphasis on the role of
organizational mass, control of the state, or insurrection in the
transition process.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (most notably in General Idea of the Revolution
in the XIX Century
) articulated an evolutionary model of transition
based on “dissolution of the state into the social body” (or “into the
economy”). However, even though Proudhon opposed violent revolution as
such, his vision nevertheless involved acting through the state itself
to oversee the transition process of devolving state functions into
society. In April 1848 he made an unsuccessful run for the Constituent
Assembly, and approached Louis Blanc, who played a leading role in
creating a parallel state composed of proletarian social institutions
like the state workshops, “to seek Blanc’s sponsorship of his plan to
transform the Bank of France into a Bank of Exchange.” He ran again in
June, this time successfully, on an electoral program of industrial
democracy in which the workers of different industries were to be
organized into corporate bodies and represented by occupational category
in the national assembly. In addition he resurrected his proposal for a
Bank of Exchange, along with a reduction of rents and a redistribution
of all property except work tools and personal

Later anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin abandoned the idea of
creating a socialist society through the state, but they kept the focus
on abrupt overthrow of the system.

II. The Triumph of Mass in the Old Left

Leninism. The Old Left’s emphasis on organizational mass and on
seizure of the means of production was based in part on the large scale
and capital intensiveness of capitalist industry. Because production
technology was extremely expensive, a revolutionary strategy centered on
seizure of existing means of production was necessary; and this in turn
required a workers’ movement with institutions whose mass corresponded
to that of the institutions they would be seizing.

The first large wave of worker cooperatives was created by the labor
movement as counter-institutions in the early 19th century, by skilled
artisans who owned their tools of production and could set up shop
anywhere with little to no capital outlay. This was true both of the
Owenist unions in the UK, as recounted by E.P. Thompson, and of the
National Trades Union in the U.S. according to John Curl.
On both sides of the Atlantic, striking artisan workers frequently
formed workers’ cooperatives, along with bazaars or alternative currency
systems for trading their wares with one another.

But by the 1840s the increasing dominance of factory production and the
cost of the machinery required had largely closed off this possibility.
Most subsequent attempts at worker-organized manufacturing failed
because of the insurmountable capital outlays required — including the
large-scale attempt at creating worker cooperatives by the Knights of
Labor in the 1880s.

The Old Left’s affinity for large-scale organization and centralized
control was also partly cultural and aesthetic: it was influenced by the
ideological hegemony of the dominant organizational mode of
mass-production capitalism.

This was true of the Marxists, in fact, going back to their early days.
Marxism lionized large-scale industry as a progressive force, and
equated scale with productivity. And the proletariat — the industrial
army which capitalism had brought together, and the revolutionary
subject which would usher in communism — was a mirror-image of
capitalist industry. Only a mass revolutionary body, a socialist party
composed of the working class and centrally organized like an army under
a general staff, possessed the size and organization to take on the size
and organization of capitalist industry.

Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal
master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of
labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As
privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a
perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants….

But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases
in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength
grows, and it feels that strength more…. Thereupon, the workers begin
to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club
together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent
associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional

Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real
fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the
ever expanding union of the workers….

This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently
into a political party, is continually being upset again by the
competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again,
stronger, firmer, mightier….

Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today,
the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes
decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the
proletariat is its special and essential product.

The emphasis on mass, hierarchy and central coordination to which the
traditional establishment Left is so attached is very much an industrial
age paradigm. There has been a tendency in much of the Left — especially
the Old Left (Marxist-Leninist, syndicalist and social democratic) — to
equate size, capital accumulation and overhead with productivity, to
view the gigantism fostered by capitalism as “progressive,” and to
equate “Revolution” to putting capitalism’s hierarchical institutions
under new management. The mission of revolutionary conquest, or
reformist capture (a la LaSalle, Bernstein or Atlee), of the
institutions of the old society presupposed countervailing institutions
of equal mass. The Old Left model of revolution, and its survivals in
the verticalist/establishment Left to the present day, are direct
analogues of the mass production industrial model of Schumpeter,
Galbraith and Chandler.

There is a great deal of parallelism between the Old Left viewpoint on
this, on the one hand, and the liberal capitalist fixation on “economies
of scale” (both the Chandlerian celebration of “capital-intensive,
management-intensive, high-speed throughput” industry, and the Austrian
equation of “roundaboutness” and accumulation with increased
productivity) on the other.

Lenin in 1917 mentioned that, along with their differences on the state,
Marxists and anarchists also disagreed on their views of industry: “the
[revolutionary Marxists] stand for centralized, large-scale communist
production, while the [anarchists] stand for disconnected small
production.” In his denunciation of “left-wing
communism,” he hit all the main points:

Unfortunately, small-scale production is still
widespread in the world, and small-scale production engenders capitalism
and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously, and on a
mass scale….

[T]he experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in
Russia has clearly shown even to those who are incapable of thinking or
have had no occasion to give thought to the matter that absolute
centralisation and rigorous discipline of the proletariat are an
essential condition of victory over the bourgeoisie.

To be sure Marxism, as such, left considerable room for libertarian and
decentralist interpretations — and indeed there have been significant
libertarian, or “left-wing communist,” currents within Marxism
throughout the 20th century and to the present day.

And there are passages in Marx, Engels and Lenin (most notably Marx’s
The Civil War in France, Engels’s commentary
on it and Lenin’s State and Revolution) which are particularly
amenable to such an interpretation. In those works they frequently
implied that the proletarian state or “dictatorship of the proletariat”
would be created after totally smashing the capitalist state apparatus,
and would replace it with a much more horizontally organized and
democratic apparatus directly administered by the working class itself.

Marx wrote, in The Civil War in France, that “the working class cannot
simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its
own purposes.” And in an 1871 letter to Ludwig Kugelmann
he cited the struggle of the Paris Communards “[not] to transfer the
bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash
it,” as the model for all future people’s revolutions in
Europe. In his postscript to Civil War in France,
Engels observed that the French working class confronted the immediate
necessity of “do[ing] away with all the old repressive machinery
previously used against it itself” — a necessity it addressed through
the “shattering of the former state power and its replacement by a new
and really democratic state.”

The proletarian dictatorship would be the height of real democracy on
the pattern of the Commune, with all posts occupied by elected officials
instantly removable by recall and paid the wage of average workers, the
standing army replaced by the workers in arms, etc. The Communards
themselves according to Marx and Engels — quoted with approval by Lenin
— saw the Commune as a model to be replicated in every town and village
in France, with the national government as a whole made up of autonomous
communes. And once class divisions were finally suppressed and the need
for armed force to maintain working class rule disappeared, this
workers’ state would in turn wither away as the habits of daily social
life replaced coercive authority.

In an earlier draft of The Civil War in France, Marx
described the Commune’s attack on state power in language that echoed
Saint-Simon and Proudhon: “the reabsorption of the State power by
society….” And he expressed openness, in Peter Hudis’s
words, to “an association of freely associated cooperatives as the most
effective form for making a transition to a new society.”
This is actually a paraphrase of Marx’s comment:

if united co-operative societies are to regulate national production
upon common plan, thus taking it under their own control, and putting an
end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the
fatality of capitalist production — what else, gentlemen, would it be
but communism, “possible” communism?

And based on a critique of Bakunin, he evidently envisioned the
proletarian dictatorship — echoing his commentary in Civil War in
on the Paris communards envisioning a French republic
composed of horizontally linked local communes — as being something very
decentralized and bottom-up. In reply to Bakunin’s question as to
whether all forty million French would be members of the workers’ state,
Marx said “Certainly! Since the whole thing begins with the
self-government of the commune” (from the context “commune” clearly
referring to local village and town communes on the model of the Russian
Mir or the Paris Commune).

As Hudis characterized it, Marx’s fundamental orientation was in direct
opposition to all forms of institutional authority that treated workers
as a means to an end rather than itself functioning as a means through
which they expressed their agency:

Here is the most important determinant in Marx’s concept of the new
society: social relations must cease to operate independently of the
self-activity of the associated individuals. Marx will oppose any power
— be it the state, a social plan, or the market itself — that takes on a
life of its own and utilises human powers as a mere means to its
fruition and development. Human power, he insists, must become
a self-sufficient end — it must cease to serve as a means to some other

This theme of powers that take on a life of their own — also described
in various places as alienation or the inversion of subject and
predicate — is a continuous theme in his writing from his Young Hegelian
days to the end of his life.

At their best, as described by Gramsci scholar Anne Showstack Sassoon,
all these different variants centered on “the theme of the withering
away of politics as a separate sphere uncontrolled by society, and its
substitution by a new type of democracy….”

And Marx’s own vision of planned production as carried out by the
associated workers by no means carried the bureaucratic and centralizing
necessity later read into it by Engels or Lenin; it was entirely
consistent with relatively decentralized models of worker-managed
production or even non-capitalist markets of a sort, so long as the law
of value and the separation of labor from the means of production it
presupposed were eliminated. This is a recurring theme in Peter Hudis’s
book cited above.

On the other hand Engels, in a letter written in 1883, suggested that
the preexisting state apparatus was to be seized and used as an
instrument of revolutionary power rather than smashed and replaced:

But after the victory of the Proletariat, the only organisation the
victorious working class finds ready-made for use, is that of the State.
It may require adaptation to the new functions. But to destroy that at
such a moment, would be to destroy the only organism by means of which
the victorious working class can exert its newly conquered power, keep
down its capitalist enemies and carry out that economical revolution of
society without which the whole victory must end in a defeat and in a
massacre of the working class like that after the Paris

And this sounds a lot closer to what the Bolsheviks actually did in

Matthew Crossin stresses the ambiguities in Marx and Engels’s conception
of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and its amenability to being
stretched in either statist or quasi-anarchistic directions. His reading
of their works, over the course of their intellectual careers,

demonstrates a fluid, threefold use of the word ‘state’:

  1. As a mere synonym for ‘society’; a ‘state’ of affairs. (e.g. a
    capitalist state or society as opposed to a communist state or society).

  2. Referring to the organisation of class rule. In a socialist context
    this amounts to the act of revolution itself; an armed populace actively
    carrying out a transformation of social relations by expropriating the
    means of production, supposedly establishing the proletariat as ‘the new
    ruling class’.

  3. To indicate the specific governmental apparatus situated above
    society which maintains class relations through its various instruments
    of coercion: the legislature, executive, judiciary, army, police,
    prisons, channels of information, schools, etc.

He points out that Marx himself (“Conspectus of Bakunin’s Book Statism
and Anarchy,” 1874–75), in response to Bukharin’s demand as to whether
the entire proletariat, collectively, could act as a proletarian state,
stressed the anarchist and decentralist aspects of it.

Marx dismissed Bakunin’s anarchist critique with considerable contempt,
declaring it to be filled with “Schoolboy nonsense!” In expanding upon
his conception of ‘the proletariat as the ruling class’ he first claims
that this refers solely to the collective ‘use of force’ (the
‘employment of coercive, meaning governmental, measures’) against
“enemies and the old organisation of society,” which would “not vanish
as a result of [the proletariat] coming to power.” Simply put, the
‘proletarian state’ is manifested in any instance where the proletariat
“has gained sufficient strength and is sufficiently well organised to
employ general means of compulsion” in the suppression of their former
masters. It is this, rather than any specific form of social
organisation, which would naturally ‘wither away’ following the
disappearance of class struggle (i.e., the victory of that revolution).
Furthermore, in responding to Bakunin’s question about ‘all 40 million
Germans being members of the government’, Marx replies that this is
“Certainly” the case, “for the thing begins with the self-government of
the commune….”

Crossin echoes Sassoon, quoted above, in seeing the boundary between
anarchism and at least one current of Marx’s thought as quite

This notion of the State – though unhelpfully referred to as such –
appears to be entirely in line with the anarchist conception of
revolution, though we are once again faced with complications when Marx
introduces references to elected managers and trade union executive
committees. Nevertheless, if we are to take Marx at his word, this
raises the question as to what the Marxist critique of anarchism
actually is. If the commune is a self-managed assembly, in which no one
is governed by anyone else and ‘the State’ merely refers to the
coordinated (or ‘centralised’) efforts of the communes to expropriate
the means of production and defend this transformation of social
relations, we are forced to conclude that Marx and Bakunin were
simultaneously both anarchists and statists. The accuracy of either
description simply depends on which definition of ‘the State’ is

…Since Proudhon, the first to call himself an anarchist, the
movement’s major theorists and political organisations were clear in
accepting only the third of Marx and Engels’ definitions. Lacking in a
sufficiently materialist analysis of the state-form, Marx interprets
Bakunin’s rejection of all States as the rejection of an ‘abstraction’.
However, for anarchists, the State has never been understood in such
terms. Instead, the movement has merely taken the common, socialist
understanding of the State’s origin and historical function seriously
and, as a result, reasoned that it cannot be the vehicle through which
capitalist social relations are overthrown.

… In this essay I have argued that the early Marx’s conception of
revolution was fundamentally statist. However, this was later
complicated by more radical statements, many of which appear to have a
more libertarian character, either reframing the State as an abstract
concept or advocating for the construction of a new kind of ‘State’.
Though the description of this ‘transitional’ form was often vague and
contradictory, the democratic statism of Marx and Engels remained
fundamentally different to the distortions most ‘Marxists’ across the
world would come to advocate. The statism of even this later period has
also been transcended entirely by various anti-authoritarian currents
within the Marxist tradition, who drew upon Marx’s more ‘anarchistic’

Nevertheless, the dominant trend — especially in the version of official
Marxism formulated by Engels, Kautsky et al, mostly after Marx’s death —
was increasingly in favor of the centralizing, statist tendencies and at
the expense of the libertarian, decentralist ones. And it was toward
emphasizing the continuities between the managerial and administrative
styles of monopoly capitalism and those of the proletarian state in the
early stages of socialism.

An early example of this tendency was Engels’ “On Authority” in 1872,
which tied together themes celebrating large-scale industry, managerial
authority and the military discipline of a revolutionary party.

On examining the economic, industrial and agricultural conditions which
form the basis of present-day bourgeois society, we find that they tend
more and more to replace isolated action by combined action of
individuals. Modern industry, with its big factories and mills, where
hundreds of workers supervise complicated machines driven by steam, has
superseded the small workshops of the separate producers; the carriages
and wagons of the highways have become substituted by railway trains,
just as the small schooners and sailing feluccas have been by
steam-boats. Even agriculture falls increasingly under the dominion of
the machine and of steam, which slowly but relentlessly put in the place
of the small proprietors big capitalists, who with the aid of hired
workers cultivate vast stretches of land.

Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon
each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever
mentions combined action speaks of organisation; now, is it possible to
have organisation without authority?

Supposing a social revolution dethroned the capitalists, who now
exercise their authority over the production and circulation of wealth.
Supposing, to adopt entirely the point of view of the
anti-authoritarians, that the land and the instruments of labour had
become the collective property of the workers who use them. Will
authority have disappeared, or will it only have changed its form? Let
us see….

…Wanting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to
wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order
to return to the spinning wheel….

We have thus seen that, on the one hand, a certain authority, no matter
how delegated, and, on the other hand, a certain subordination, are
things which, independently of all social organisation, are imposed upon
us together with the material conditions under which we produce and make
products circulate.

We have seen, besides, that the material conditions of production and
circulation inevitably develop with large-scale industry and large-scale
agriculture, and increasingly tend to enlarge the scope of this

…[The anti-authoritarians] demand that the first act of the social
revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen
ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian
thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes
its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon —
authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious
party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule
by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the

The practical difficulties in distinguishing a strategy of smashing and
replacing the capitalist state, from one of simply taking it over under
new management, was inadvertently highlighted by Engels’ emphasis in
Anti-Duhring of the institutional continuities between monopoly
capitalism and socialism and the extent to which the workers’ state
would take over the organizational machinery of capitalism.

This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more
powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger
command that their social character shall be recognised, forces the
capitalist class itself to treat them more and more as social productive
forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions. The
period of industrial high pressure… tends to bring about that form of
the socialisation of great masses of means of production which we meet
with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies. Many of these
means of production and of communication are, from the outset, so
colossal that, like the railways, they exclude all other forms of
capitalistic exploitation. At a further stage of evolution this form
also becomes insufficient: the official representative of capitalist
society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of
production. This necessity for conversion into state property is felt
first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication — the
post office, the telegraphs, the railways.

If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing
any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great
establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock
companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are
for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now
performed by salaried employees….

But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state
ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the
productive forces…. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a
head, it topples over. State ownership of the productive forces is not
the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical
conditions that form the elements of that solution.

This solution can only consist in the practical recognition of the
social nature of the modern forces of production… And this can only
come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the
productive forces which have outgrown all control except that of society
as a whole….

These tendencies became even more pronounced in practice, once Lenin and
the Bolsheviks faced the task of actually administering a socialist

Lenin insisted in State and Revolution, echoing Marx and Engels on the
Paris Commune, that the proletarian revolution would smash the bourgeois
state completely and replace it with a new workers’ state based on the
soviets that was fundamentally different in character.

But as we already noted, it is hard to distinguish in practice between
annihilating the capitalist state and calling an entirely new one into
existence from the void, and simply taking over the capitalist state and
reorganizing it under new management.

Lenin simultaneously claimed that the proletarian state would eliminate
the bureaucracy, while also citing the German Postal Service as an
example of the kind of administrative apparatus that the workers’ state
would create.

A witty German Social-Democrat of the seventies of the last century
called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system.
This is very true. At present the postal service is a business organized
on the lines of state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually
transforming all trusts into organizations of a similar type… Once we
have overthrown the capitalists, crushed the resistance of these
exploiters with the iron hand of the armed workers, and smashed the
bureaucratic machinery of the modern state, we shall have a
splendidly-equipped mechanism, freed from the “parasite,” a mechanism
which can very well be set going by the united workers themselves, who
will hire technicians, foremen and accountants, and pay them all, as
indeed all “state” officials in general, workmen’s wages….

To organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service so that
the technicians, foremen and accountants, as well as all officials,
shall receive salaries no higher than “a workman’s wage,” all under the
control and leadership of the armed proletariat — that is our immediate

To be fair he envisioned this apparatus as a sort
of neutral platform operated by workers that would facilitate his vision
of direct administration of the state apparatus by ordinary workers,
fully consistent with a long tradition of socialist visions of replacing
legislation over people with the “administration of things” from
Saint-Simon right up to the present-day Partner State of Cosma Orsi and
Michel Bauwens.

But in practice, a bureaucratic state on the model Lenin admired so much
required an authoritarian internal culture of the kind described by Max
Weber and Frederick Taylor in order to function. And in practice it is
virtually impossible to separate Lenin’s admiration for the German Post
Office’s bureaucratic model with his admiration for the institutional
values of Weber and Taylor, which were directly at odds with worker
administration of the state and of industry. Indeed, when
Weberian/Taylorist organizational ideas came into conflict with the
administration of the state by workers, Lenin chose the former even at
the expense of forcibly suppressing the latter.

Lenin, when talking of “smashing the bureaucracy,” seemed to define the
latter entirely in terms of entrenched status and high salaries, while
expressing admiration for Weberian values like standardized work rules
that most people who are not Lenin consider the defining features of
bureaucracy. And it was the features of managerialist, late-stage
monopoly capitalism most people regard as bureaucratic that Lenin framed
as making bureaucracy no longer necessary.

Capitalist culture has created large-scale production, factories,
railways, the postal service, telephones, etc., and on this basis the
great majority of the functions of the old “state power” have become so
simplified and can be reduced to such exceedingly simple operations of
registration, filing, and checking that they can be easily performed by
every literate person, can quite easily be performed for ordinary
“workmen’s wages,” and that these functions can (and must) be stripped
of every shadow of privilege, of every semblance of “official

Lenin in fact saw “bureaucracy” not as a mode of operation, but as a
stratum defined by privilege; and he saw the elimination of bureaucracy
as something brought about not by a change in the mode of operation, but
a change in the identities and remuneration of those engaged in it. The
Soviet state and industry might be managed according to all the rules
identified by Weberian bureaucracy, but so long as they were recallable
and paid workers’ wages, and any worker could rotate into superintending
positions, it was not a “bureaucracy.”

Despite his claims regarding the elimination of “bureaucracy,” Lenin —
like Engels in Anti-Duhring — saw the administration of the
economy under socialism as a direct outgrowth and continuation of the
administrative forms of centralized monopoly capitalism.

The development of capitalism… creates the preconditions that enable
really “all” to take part in the administration of the state. Some of
these preconditions are: universal literacy, which has already been
achieved in a number of the most advanced capitalist countries, then the
“training and disciplining” of millions of workers by the huge, complex,
socialized apparatus of the postal service, railways, big factories,
large-scale commerce, banking, etc., etc.

Given these economic preconditions, it is quite possible, after the
overthrow of the capitalists and the bureaucrats, to proceed
immediately, overnight, to replace them in the control over production
and distribution, in the work of keeping account of labor and products,
by the armed workers, by the whole of the armed population. (The
question of control and accounting should not be confused with the
question of the scientifically trained staff of engineers, agronomists,
and so on. These gentlemen are working today in obedience to the wishes
of the capitalists and will work even better tomorrow in obedience to
the wishes of the armed workers.)

Accounting and control — that is mainly what is needed for the “smooth
working,” for the proper functioning, of the first phase of communist
society. All citizens are transformed into hired employees of the
state, which consists of the armed workers. All citizens becomes
employees and workers of a single countrywide state “syndicate.” All
that is required is that they should work equally, do their proper share
of work, and get equal pay; the accounting and control necessary for
this have been simplified by capitalism to the utmost and reduced to
the extraordinarily simple operations — which any literate person can
perform — of supervising and recording, knowledge of the four rules of
arithmetic, and issuing appropriate receipts…

The whole of society will have become a single office and a single

As Simon Mohun noted, with the rapid growth in industrial output in the
late 19th and early 20th century, there was a tendency among Marxists to
regard advanced capitalist technology as the necessary form of
organization of the labour process no matter what the social relations
of production were. That is to say, the technology came to be seen as
class-neutral and its authoritarian and hierarchical nature as a
function of the prevailing relations of production.

In “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” Lenin set the primary
economic task as introducing the same “strict accounting and control” in
expropriated industry which he discussed in State and Revolution, and
increasing the productivity of labor. And he further stressed the
continuities between such methods — which he saw as eliminating the
need for bureaucracy rather than characterizing bureaucratic style —
and Taylor’s principles of scientific management. In particular, he said
of Taylorism that the Soviet Republic

must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of
science and technology in this field. The possibility of building
socialism depends exactly upon our success in combining the Soviet
organization of administration with the up-to-date achievements of

…[I]t must be said that large-scale machine industry — which is
precisely the material source, the productive source, the foundation of
socialism — calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs
the joint labours of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of
people. The technical, economic and historical necessity of this is
obvious, and all those who have thought about socialism have always
regarded it as one of the conditions of socialism. But how can strict
unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the
will of one.

…We must consolidate what we ourselves have won, what we ourselves
have decreed, made law, discussed, planned — consolidate all this in
stable forms of everyday labour discipline. This is the most
difficult, but the most gratifying task, because only its fulfilment
will give us a socialist system. We must learn to combine the “public
meeting” democracy of the working people — turbulent, surging,
overflowing its banks like a spring flood—with iron discipline while
at work, with unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person,
the Soviet leader, while at work.

This mindset led the regime to exclude workers’ factory committees from
all involvement in management decisions, and to implement strict
“one-man management.”

Anyone knowledgeable in industrial history will know that the primary
purpose of standardized procedures and scientific management was to
break tasks down into such simple components that individual compliance
could be easily monitored, and management could exert control over
production workers. Lenin’s language in describing the potential for his
favored techniques of accounting and control is quite evocative to
anyone familiar with Foucault or James C. Scott.

When the majority of the people begin independently and everywhere to
keep such accounts and exercise such control over the capitalists (now
converted into employees) and over the intellectual gentry who preserve
their capitalist habits, this control will really become universal,
general, and popular; and there will be no getting away from it, there
will be “nowhere to go.”

If Lenin stressed the potential for this system of control to render
former members of the bourgeoisie and other recalcitrants more legible
from above, it was also eminently suited to maintaining such legibility
and control over the proletarian work force — the management itself
being proletarian in its goals and sympathies by definition, of

And as Neil Harding observed, the change from writing about a
theoretical proletarian dictatorship from outside during the Kerensky
regime, to heading a government after the Revolution, had a considerable
effect on Lenin’s perspective.

From the spring of 1918 onwards Lenin’s writings altered considerably in
tone. As chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars he was
confronted by a mounting series of crises: urban famine, collapse of
transport and of the army, foreign interventions and civil war. His
preoccupations now were to ensure the most efficient mobilization of the
regime’s scarce resources, to instill firm discipline and accountability
and to insist upon the authority of the centre.

All this is in keeping with our earlier discussion of the Old Left as an
ideology suited to the mass-production age; it accepted mass production
as a neutral and inevitable outcome of the advanced development of
productive forces, while ignoring the possibility either that multiple
alternative paths of technological advancement might have existed or
that capitalism selected among these alternative paths on some basis
other than neutral technical efficiency.

And the same mindset carried over into the inexorable stripping of the
soviets of real authority and their transformation into transmission
belts for policies made within the Party apparatus. Lenin explicitly
denounced and mocked the “left-wing communists” who objected to the
suppression of both the workers’ committees and the soviets.

As any number of libertarian Marxist and other libertarian socialist
critics have pointed out, the idea of founding “socialism” on the wage
system and on the replication of capitalist relations of authority is
fundamentally flawed. For example, Carl Boggs:

The Leninist monopoly of power in Russia had two main consequences: it
transformed the masses “represented” by the party into manipulated
objects, and it generated a preoccupation with bureaucratic methods and
techniques. Lenin’s whole approach was that of the technician who
stresses the organizational means of political struggle while
downplaying the ends themselves. This suppression of values permits the
utilization of capitalist methods to advance “socialist construction”:
hierarchical structures, Taylorism, the authoritarian-submissive
personality, alienated labor. All stirrings from below were thus
dismissed as “Utopian,” “ultra-leftist,” or “anarchistic.”…

Lenin equated workers’ power with the fact of Bolshevik rule, mocking
the “petty bourgeois illusions” of leftists who clamored for democratic
participation. By 1921, the regime had already destroyed or converted
into “transmission belts” those popular and autonomous institutions —
the Soviets, trade unions, factory committees — that played a vital role
in the revolution….

The idea of “collective ownership” remains a myth so long as the old
forms of institutional control are not destroyed; the supersession of
private management by state or “public” management poses only a
superficial, abstract solution to the contradictions of capitalism….
Only when the workers themselves establish new participatory forms can
alienated labor and subordination be eliminated. This transformation
includes but runs much deeper than the problem of formal ownership — it
penetrates to the level of factory hierarchy and authoritarianism,
fragmentation of job skills, commodity production, and separation of
mental and physical functions that grow out of the capitalist division
of labor. These features, which are often thought to be necessary for
greater efficiency and productivity, can better be understood as a means
of ensuring control of labor.

Anarchism, Libertarian Communism, Syndicalism, Etc.
These technological assumptions regarding large-scale industry — and its
corollary, the centrality of large-scale organization to post-capitalist
transition — were carried over and intensified not only in Leninism, but
in the other major currents of the Old Left. This was true of the major
schools of revolutionary anarchism, and of the more libertarian strands
of socialism.

Revolutionary anarchist approaches, by definition, entail the existence
of mass organization and an emphasis on the wholesale capture of the
means of production in a single insurrectionary assault. Pyotr
Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, for example, was devoted from
beginning to end to outlining a scenario of the working class’s seizure
of industry, retail shops, housing, food production, etc., and the
coordination of production and distribution by the working class on a
communistic basis. And he saw such a rupture as an all-or-nothing thing,
impossible to carry out piecemeal.

There are, in fact, in a modern State established relations which it is
practically impossible to modify if one attacks them only in detail.
…[T]he machinery is so complex and interdependent that no one part can
be modified without disturbing the whole….

All is interdependent in a civilized society; it
is impossible to reform any one thing without altering the whole.
Therefore, on the day we strike at private property, under any one of
its forms, territorial or industrial, we shall be obliged to attack them

Daniel De Leon, a libertarian socialist and the father of the main
Marxist tendency native to the United States, argued in 1912 that size —
in the sense of capital-intensiveness — was an indispensable
prerequisite for efficiency. And like Marx, he saw the increasing size
associated with efficiency leading, inexorably, to progressively higher
levels of centralized organization by the working class — a process
which meant capitalism’s doom.

Progress demands large production of wealth. The volume of wealth is the
measure of the possibilities for progress. The measure of efficiency is
the volume of wealth produced with least waste, and with the least
amount of toil possible. Is such efficiency possible without size? It is

There is no help to be looked for by capitalism from a perspective
“breakdown” of efficiency due to size. Size is incited by efficiency.
Efficiency flows from size. And size will wax and wax to the point when
capitalism will “break down,” not because of the stoppage of efficiency,
but because the human agency of efficiency, the wage-slave class, in
whose hands, from captainships down to “high privateships,” the
administration of the plants will be found more and more completely
lodged, will discontinue administering for a parasite class, and will
administer for themselves.

The syndicalist approach, by its very nature, entails a transitional
strategy based on mass organization within industry and coordinated mass
activity like the general strike. This was true of De Leonism, to the
extent that De Leon’s overall approach combined syndicalist federated
industrial unionism in the workplace with electoral politics by a
socialist party, although in his strategy the electoral approach was
primary. The revolutionary transition was to be achieved primarily in
the political realm, but the economy was to be organized by industrial
unions in order to take possession of industry at the moment of
political victory. Industrial unionism also served as a defensive backup
in case the employing class responded to the working class’s political
seizure of power with a general capital strike and lockout. The working
class, instead, would lock out the capitalists and take over

But a much more significant figure was Rosa Luxemburg, a leader of the
Spartakus movement and critic of the growing authoritarianism of the
Bolshevik regime, who was martyred during the suppression of the German
Council Republic. She saw “the progressive increase of the minimum
amount of capital necessary for the functioning of the enterprises in
the old branches of production” as a natural tendency in the development
of the productive capacities of capitalism. Like Marx,
she saw the growing scale of industry and its increasingly centralized
coordination as manifestations of the progressive socialization of
production within capitalism.

The vulgar Marxist nature of her views on the development of industrial
technology under capitalism becomes especially clear in her discussion
of cooperatives under capitalism.

Co-operatives — especially co-operatives in the field of production
constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be
described as small units of socialised production within capitalist

But in capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result of
competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the
interests of capital — that is, pitiless exploitation — becomes a
condition for the survival of each enterprise…. The workers forming a
co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the
contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost
absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of
capitalist entrepreneur — a contradiction that accounts for the usual
failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist
enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end
by dissolving….

Producers’ co-operatives can survive within capitalist economy only if
they manage to suppress, by means of some detour, the capitalist
controlled contradictions between the mode of production and the mode of
exchange. And they can accomplish this only by removing themselves
artificially from the influence of the laws of free competition. And
they can succeed in doing the last only when they assure themselves
beforehand of a constant circle of consumers, that is, when they assure
themselves of a constant market.

It is the consumers’ co-operative that can offer this service to its
brother in the field of production. Here – and not in Oppenheimer’s
distinction between co-operatives that produce and co-operatives that
sell — is the secret sought by Bernstein: the explanation for the
invariable failure of producers’ co-operatives functioning independently
and their survival when they are backed by consumers’ organisations.

If it is true that the possibilities of existence of producers’
co-operatives within capitalism are bound up with the possibilities of
existence of consumers’ co-operatives, then the scope of the former is
limited, in the most favourable of cases, to the small local market and
to the manufacture of articles serving immediate needs, especially food
products. Consumers’ and therefore producers’ co-operatives, are
excluded from the most important branches of capital production — the
textile, mining, metallurgical and petroleum industries, machine
construction, locomotive and ship-building. For this reason alone
(forgetting for the moment their hybrid character), co-operatives in the
field of production cannot be seriously considered as the instrument of
a general social transformation. The establishment of producers’
co-operatives on a wide scale would suppose, first of all, the
suppression of the world market, the breaking up of the present world
economy into small local spheres of production and exchange. The highly
developed, wide-spread capitalism of our time is expected to fall back
to the merchant economy of the Middle Ages.

Within the framework of present society, producers’ co-operatives are
limited to the role of simple annexes to consumers’ co-operatives. It
appears, therefore, that the latter must be the beginning of the
proposed social change. But this way the expected reform of society by
means of co-operatives ceases to be an offensive against capitalist
production. That is, it ceases to be an attack against the principal
bases of capitalist economy. It becomes, instead, a struggle against
commercial capital, especially small and middle-sized commercial
capital. It becomes an attack made on the twigs of the capitalist tree.

Note the implicit assumption, throughout this long passage, that
capitalism has created the optimal forms of production technology and
means of organizing production — that its historic function has been to
“unleash forces of production” which are objectively more efficient than
the alternatives. Because the scale and the managerial form of
capitalist industry is optimally efficient, it follows that the only way
cooperative industry can compete within capitalism is by imposing the
same standards of efficiency — and of labor discipline over its members,
in particular — as capitalist industry.

Hence it is outside the realm of possibility that the main function of
managerial bureaucracy is to compensate for the basic conflicts of
interest, information and incentives problems, that plague absentee
owned and hierarchical organizations. It is likewise outside the realm
of possibility that a cooperative enterprise might be more efficient
than a capitalist one precisely because of its lack of a managerial
hierarchy, and its corresponding lack of high overhead costs from
management salaries. (This was, in fact, demonstrated by the
self-managed recuperated enterprises in Argentina, whose worker-managers
discovered that they had solved the problem of unit cost competition by
the simple act of firing their C-suite parasites). And it is positively
absurd, for a vulgar Marxist, to consider that a worker-managed firm
might be more efficient and operate at lower cost — despite paying
better wages — because it is better at innovation and at making use of
distributed knowledge.

Because large-scale, managerial enterprise is self-evidently the most
efficient way to organize production — it is, after all, the product of
capitalism, whose historic role is to unleash all those productive
forces — it follows that producer cooperatives scaled to the market
areas of local consumer cooperatives, being small, will be a regression
to the medieval.

Since it is outside the realm of possibility that for large classes of
goods the most efficient form of production is with tools scaled to
local consumption, we also rule out the possibility that production
undertaken directly for use, with highly-efficient small-scale
machinery, might be more efficient than capitalist production. Hence the
idea of commons-based economies, operating within the interstices of
capitalism and actually outcompeting and supplanting it through superior
agility and efficiency, can only be pure petty bourgeois fantasy.

And her argument that components of a socialist society cannot be built
by workers “within capitalist production” implies, as in
Antonio Negri’s accelerationist version of autonomism, that capitalism
is a system “with no outside.”

For Luxemburg as for Marx, the transition to socialism was to be brought
about through the seizure of state power by the working class, organized
politically. There was no room for even the partial development of
socialist institutions, by the working class itself, within the
interstices of capitalism; the primary significance of trade union
activity and other forms of working class organization within the
present system is that “such activity prepares the proletariat, that is
to say, creates the subjective factor of the socialist transformation”
for “the conquest of political power.” All working class organization
and activity in the meantime is geared entirely towards the future
achievement of that end. The task of constructing the
material basis of communism lay entirely with the capitalists until the
Revolution, and with the working class only after the Revolution. In the
meantime, the sole task of the working class was to prepare for the
revolutionary seizure of what the capitalists had built.

From the uppermost summit of the state down to the tiniest parish, the
proletarian mass must therefore replace the inherited organs of
bourgeois class rule – the assemblies, parliaments, and city councils –
with its own class organs – with workers’ and soldiers’ councils. It
must occupy all the posts, supervise all functions, measure all official
needs by the standard of its own class interests and the tasks of
socialism. Only through constant, vital, reciprocal contact between the
masses of the people and their organs, the workers’ and soldiers’
councils, can the activity of the people fill the state with a socialist

The economic overturn, likewise, can be accomplished only if the process
is carried out by proletarian mass action…. The workers can achieve
control over production, and ultimately real power, by means of
tenacious struggle with capital, hand-to-hand, in every shop, with
direct mass pressure, with strikes and with the creation of its own
permanent representative organs.

Our assumptions regarding technological history are quite different from
those of vulgar Marxism. As we will argue in the next chapter, the
radical shift towards cheapening and decentralization of production
technology from the late 20th century on has rendered obsolete both the
mass production industrial model and the Old Left focus on
centrally-directed mass organizations. But that is not to say that large
scale production was ever objectively necessary. Even in what Lewis
Mumford called the Paleotechnic Age, large-scale steam-powered industry
was simply one path that supplanted alternative paths that might
otherwise have grown out of the possibilities of the Eotechnic
technologies of the late Middle Ages. And it supplanted
it, in large part, through the power of the Paleotechnic coalition of
the state, military, armaments, capitalist landed interests and
extractive industries. Small-scale, distributed machine production was
arguably always technically feasible, absent the political power of
Paleotechnic gigantism. And the introduction of Neotechnic technologies
like electrically powered machinery made small-scale production
incontestably the most efficient form. Unfortunately the allied forces
of state and capital diverted Neotechnic technologies into the less
efficient channel of mass-production industry, and rendered it
artificially profitable through subsidies and state-enforced
cartels. What’s different today is that
micro-manufacturing technology is making small-scale production so much
more comparatively efficient, even over and above its previous superior
efficiency, that the political power of the big corporations is no
longer sufficient to suppress or coopt it.

It would be pointless to tick off all the other specific libertarian
socialist, libertarian communist, syndicalist, and revolutionary
anarchist tendencies in the same regard. In every case, the ideology by
its very definition entails the insurrectionary seizure of the means of
production, if not of the state, by mass action. And its central focus,
accordingly, is on the mass political party or mass industrial union.

Social Democracy. Social Democratic parties exhibited essentially
the same tendencies as the Leninist vanguard party — both before and
after taking power — toward bureaucratic oligarchy.

In Political Parties, Robert Michels analyzed the functioning of the
“Iron Law of Oligarchy” within all large, hierarchical institutions. “By
a universally applicable social law,” he wrote, “every organ of the
collectivity, brought into existence through the need for the division
of labor, creates for itself, as soon as it becomes consolidated,
interests peculiar to itself.” Since the state “cannot be anything other
than the organization of a minority” or ever “be truly representative of
the majority,” it follows that the majority will never be capable of
self-government through hierarchical institutions based on indirect
representation. To summarize: “It is organization which
gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the
mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators.
Who says organization, says oligarchy.”

In addition, the oligarchies governing theoretically oppositional
institutions frequently wind up, in actual practice, engaging more
cooperatively than adversarially with the institutions whose power they
were originally intended to limit. Hilaire Belloc speculated, in The
Servile State
, on the likelihood of such a de facto coalition between a
“socialist” state and the capitalists whose power it was in theory put
in power to supplant with working class power.

Belloc noted the tendencies, in particular, in the Fabian movement of
his time. The genuinely principled and egalitarian sort of socialist, he
wrote, might desire to dispossess the capitalists of their power and
their property in the means of production. But they would find their
path to this end blocked by the political realities of the situation,
and would find themselves instead diverted in a completely different

This idealist social reformer, therefore, finds the current of his
demand canalised. As to one part of it, confiscation, it is checked and
barred; as to the other, securing human conditions for the proletariat,
the gates are open….

…[A]ll those things in the true socialist’s demand which are compatible
with the servile state can certainly be achieved.

The devil’s bargain offered by the servile state is summarized in the
words of an imagined capitalist:

…“I refuse to be dispossessed, and it is, short of catastrophe,
impossible to dispossess me. But if you will define the relation between
my employees and myself, I will undertake particular responsibilities
due to my position. Subject the proletarian, as a proletarian, and
because he is a proletarian, to special laws. Clothe me, the capitalist,
and because I am a capitalist, with special converse duties under those
laws. I will faithfully see that they are obeyed; I will compel my
employees to obey them, and I will undertake the new role imposed upon
me by the state. Nay, I will go further, and I will say that such a
novel arrangement will make my own profits perhaps larger and certainly
more secure.

If the “true” socialist is grudgingly forced into this bargain from the
realities of the situation, another kind finds the servile state or
collective capitalism positively appealing.

In him the exploitation of man by man excites no indignation. Indeed, he
is not of a type to which indignation or any other lively passion is
familiar. Tables, statistics, an exact frame-work for life these afford
him the food that satisfies his moral appetite; the occupation most
congenial to him is the “running” of men: as a machine is run.

To such a man the Collectivist ideal particularly appeals….

Now this man, like the other, would prefer to begin with public property
in capital and land, and upon that basis to erect the formal scheme
which so suits his peculiar temperament….

But all those other things for which such a man cares much more than he
does for the socialisation of the means of production — tabulation,
detailed administration of men, the co-ordination of many efforts under
one schedule…, all these are immediately obtainable without disturbing
the existing arrangement of society…. Let laws exist which make the
proper housing, feeding, clothing, and recreation of the proletarian
mass be incumbent upon the possessing class, and the observance of such
rules be imposed, by inspection and punishment, upon those whom he
pretends to benefit, and all that he really cares for will be

This is a description, almost to the letter, of the type of Fabian
represented by the Webbs.

From the worker’s standpoint, the state socialism Belloc describes is a
sort of industrial serfdom administered by the capitalist.

The proletarian accepts a position in which he produces for the
capitalist a certain portion of economic values, and retains out of that
total a portion only, leaving to the capitalist all surplus value. The
capitalist, on his side, is guaranteed in the secure and permanent
expectation of that surplus value through all the perils of social envy;
the proletarian is guaranteed in a sufficiency and a security for that
sufficiency; but by the very action of such a guarantee there is
withdrawn from him the power to refuse his labor and thus to aim at
putting himself in possession of the means of production.

The overall nature of the project, as with the American Progressive
movement, was not socialistic at all. Rather, it aimed at class harmony
and the transcendence of class conflict altogether (in Belloc’s words
“reconciling the interests of capital and labor”) through
the rationalization of society under the supervision of properly
qualified professionals.

An American socialist, William English Walling, in the same year (1912)
addressed many of the same tendencies under the label “state socialism”
(which he used interchangeably with “collective capitalism”).

The “socialist” program of nationalization, social insurance, and labor
reform advocated by the Fabians, even at its most ambitious, was no more
than Bismarck was doing, and was supported by many “progressive”
capitalists — including Churchill and Lloyd-George — who wanted to
“rationalize” capitalism as well.

…[A]s capitalism becomes further organized and gives more attention to
government, and the State takes up such functions as the capitalists
direct, they will double and multiply many fold their long-term
governmental investments in the form of expenditures for industrial
activities and social reforms.

Already leading capitalists in this country as well as elsewhere welcome
the extension of government into the business field. The control of the
railroads by a special court over which the railroads have a large
influence proves to be just what the railroads have

Despite Roosevelt’s pose as a “trust-buster” in a few high-profile
cases, the Progressive movement for the most part saw the great trusts
as representing optimal efficiency, and favored an alliance between
forward-thinking capitalists and the state to manage them in the
interest of a “pubic welfare” defined largely in capitalist terms.
Walling quotes Elihu Root:

Germany, to a considerable extent, requires combination of her
manufacturers, producers, and commercial concerns. Japan also
practically does this. But in the United States it cannot be done under
government leadership, because the people do not conceive it to be the
government’s function. It seems to be rather that the government is
largely taken up with breaking up organization, and that reduces the
industrial efficiency of the country.

Walling’s understanding of nationalization of industry by the capitalist
state was essentially the same as that of Engels a generation earlier:

…The industrial capitalists, then, have very [sic] motive… to
nationalize those fundamental industries that can only be made in this
way to subserve the interests of the capitalist class as a whole
(instead of some part of it merely), and to undertake through government
those costly enterprises which are needed by all industry, but which
give too slow returns to attract the capitalist investor.

Walling’s account of the attitudes of Progressives and Fabians on labor
reform echoes that of Belloc: the entire focus is on the effect of
improved working and living conditions on creating a more efficient and
productive work force, and the resulting benefit to

The minimal program of such state socialists amounts to integrating the
working class as serfs into a new feudalism administered by capitalists,
with the state guaranteeing some minimal degree of welfare to the worker
in the same way a benevolent lord of the manor might guarantee the
welfare of his laborers. But the proper standard of socialism is not the
negative one of how much human misery it abolishes, but the positive one
of what is done with the surplus and who has the right to dispose of
it. The state socialism Walling describes is simply a more humane — and
more efficient and productive — form of capitalism, in which the surplus
continues to be administered by the capitalists in service to their own

Walling shared Belloc’s view that even reformers who saw themselves as
anti-capitalist would most likely naively allow themselves to be coopted
into the capitalist regime as overseers and regimenters of the

The state socialist agenda as analyzed by Walling did not give equal
power to the organized workers, compared to the power of organized
capital. The power of organized labor was at best a veto designed to
prevent outright abuses and maintain a minimum standard of living, while
remaining integrated into an industrial system directed by the
capitalist class. Compare this to the Wagner Act, which
guaranteed a right to unionize for better wages and hours, while
removing labor’s previous potential for interfering with the right to

The Fabian movement was almost completely anti-socialist, according to
any definition of socialism current outside the Fabian Society itself.
As an indication of how little of a socialist Sidney Webb was, for
example, he denounced the Liberals on the grounds that they had “the
revolutionary tradition in their bones,” and saw society as “a struggle
of warring interests.” Even the Labour Party as such was
almost completely dominated by the state socialist approach. Ramsey
MacDonald stated in so many words that “Public ownership is

New Left historian Gabriel Kolko, writing fifty years later, shared
Walling’s view that the Progressive movement in the United States aimed
primarily at rationalizing capitalism. Specifically, Progressive Era
reforms were intended to impose cartels on industry through the
regulatory regime, in order to prevent destabilizing price competition
and facilitate administered pricing.

Political capitalism is the utilization of political outlets to
attain conditions of stability, predictability, and security — to attain
rationalization — in the economy. Stability is the elimination of
internecine competition and erratic fluctuations in the economy.
Predictability is the ability, on the basis of politically stabilized
and secured means, to plan future economic action on the basis of fairly
calculable expectations. By security I mean protection from the
political attacks latent in any formally democratic political structure.
I do not give to rationalization its frequent definition as the
improvement of efficiency, output, or internal organization of a
company; I mean by the term, rather, the organization of the economy and
the larger political and social spheres in a manner that will allow
corporations to function in a predictable and secure environment
permitting reasonable profits over the long run.

In the ensuing decades, something very much like Walling’s state
socialism was implemented in the closest approximations to Social
Democracy in the UK and US: the Atlee government and the American New

Power Elite sociologist G. William Domhoff and his mentor C. Wright
Mills together created a large body of work showing that the
theoretically “countervailing” institutions posited by pluralist
thinkers like John Kenneth Galbraith in American Capitalism — Big
Labor and the regulatory state as limits on the power of Big Business,
etc. — actually turn out in practice to form interlocking complexes of
institutions governed by the same personnel rotating between their
leadership ranks.

Anarchist Paul Goodman noted, in similar terms, the tendency of
institutions to group themselves into complexes based on similarity of
organizational style: “[T]he genius of our centralized bureaucracies has
been, as they interlock, to form a mutually accrediting establishment of
decision-makers, with common interests and a common style that nullify
the diversity of pluralism.”

Goodman formulated a typology of organizations that “cuts across the
usual division of profit and non-profit,” as shown by the prevalence in
large institutions of “status salaries and expense accounts … ,
[and] excessive administration and overhead ….”

To sum up: what swell the costs in enterprises carried on in the
interlocking centralized systems of society, whether commercial,
official, or non-profit institutional, are all the factors of
organization, procedure, and motivation that are not directly determined
to the function and the desire to perform it. Their patents and rents,
fixed prices, union scales, featherbedding, fringe benefits, status
salaries, expense accounts, proliferating administration, paper work,
permanent overhead, public relations and promotions, waste of time and
skill by departmentalizing task-roles, bureaucratic thinking that is
penny-wise pound-foolish, inflexible procedure and tight scheduling that
exaggerate contingencies and overtime.

But when enterprises can be carried on autonomously by professionals,
artists, and workmen intrinsically committed to the job, there are
economies all along the line. People make do on means. They spend on
value, not convention. They flexibly improvise procedures as opportunity
presents and they step in in emergencies. They do not watch the clock.
The available skills of each person are put to use. They eschew status
and in a pinch accept subsistence wages. Administration and overhead are
ad hoc. The task is likely to be seen in its essence rather than

And rather than “countervailing” each other, as argued by Galbraith, the
first category of organizations cluster into coalitions or institutional
complexes: “the industrial-military complex, the alliance of promoters,
contractors, and government in Urban Renewal; the alliance of
universities, corporations, and government in research and development.
This is the great domain of cost-plus.”

Domhoff observed something very like Walling’s state socialism and
Belloc’s Servile State in the New Deal. Its corporatist nature was
evidenced, in particular, in the New Deal labor accord. Its roots lay in
the company unions under what was variously known as Welfare Capitalism
or the American System, most notably implemented at General Electric
under Gerard Swope.

The business coalition behind the New Deal was concentrated primarily in
large, capital-intensive industry, as exemplified by Swope’s GE; Swope
was the most prominent member of FDR’s Business Advisory Council. Labor
was a relatively minor part of the total cost package of such
businesses; at the same time, capital-intensive industry, as Galbraith
pointed out in his analysis of the “technostructure” in The New
Industrial State
, depended on long-term stability and predictability
for planning. Therefore, this segment of big business was willing to
trade higher wages for social peace in the workplace.

Industrial unionism, from the employer’s viewpoint, had the advantage
over craft unionism of providing a single bargaining agent with which
management could deal. One of the reasons for the popularity of “company
unions” among large corporations, besides the obvious advantages in
pliability, was the fact that they were an alternative to the host of
separate craft unions of the AFL.

Swope, in particular, experimented during the heyday of welfare
capitalism with company unions that offered a grievance procedure, along
with arbitration on disciplinary matters. The purpose of such unions was
to secure workplace peace and stability while reserving questions of
work organization and compensation to management.

By bringing collective bargaining under the aegis of federal labor law,
management was able to use union leadership to discipline its own rank
and file, and to use federal courts as a mechanism of enforcement.

The New Dealers devised … a means to integrate big labor into the
corporate state. But only unions that were industrially organized, and
which paralleled in their structure the organization of industry itself,
could play the appropriate role. A successful corporate state required a
safe industrial-union movement to work. It also required a union
leadership that shared the desire to operate the economy from the top in
formal conferences with the leaders of the other functional economic
groups, particularly the corporate leaders. The CIO unions …
provided such a union leadership.

Collective bargaining did not affect the distribution of wealth, because
firms in an oligopoly position, with a relatively inelastic demand, were
able to pass increased labor costs on to the consumer at virtually no
cost to themselves.

Domhoff saw Wagner as a subsumption of unions by capitalism. “The
benefits to capital were several: greater efficiency and productivity
from labor, less labor turnover, the disciplining of the labor force by
labor unions, the possibility of planning labor costs over the long run,
and the dampening of radical doctrines.” James O’Connor
argued that under Wagner “unions were… the guarantors of ‘managerial
prerogatives.’” Their function was ”to inhibit disruptive, spontaneous
rank-and-file activity (e.g., wildcat strikes and slowdowns) and to
maintain labor discipline in general.”

The UK’s experience with Labour rule under the Atlee government was
quite similar. A socialist or labor party, in theory, is to be the key
representative of the working class and to be indissolubly linked with
it. But, as Stuart Hall observes,

once in government, social democracy is committed to finding solutions
to the crisis which are capable of winning support from key sections of
capital, since its solutions are framed within those limits. But this
requires that the indissoluble link be used, not to advance but to
discipline the class and organizations it represents. This is only
possible if the link — class-to-party — is dismantled and if there can
be substituted for it an alternative articulation: government-to-people.
The rhetorics of “national interest,” which is the principal ideological
form in which a succession of defeats have been imposed on the working
class by social democracy in power, are exactly the sites where this
contradiction shows through…. [But government-to-people] sets Labour,
at key moments of struggle… by definition “on the side of the nation”
against “sectional interests,” “irresponsible trade union power,” etc.

This is the terrain on which Mr. Heath played such destructive games in
the lead-through to the Industrial Relations Act and its aftermath with
his invocation of… the spectre of “holding the nation up to

From its origins the Labour Party was faced by a basic contradiction
between the demands of the labor movement from which it was derived, and
the needs of electoral politics. The existence of the Fabian movement,
as an intellectual arm of the Party dominated by the ideological
perspective of the managerial and professional classes (much like the
circles around the National Civic Federation and the editorial staff of
The New Republic, which dominated the Progressive movement in the US),
only added to this conflict.

This was already apparent from the end of WWI, when trade union leaders
admonished the radicals in their membership to eschew industrial action
for political purposes, leaving political goals to the Parliamentary
party. There was also, on the part of both mainstream union leaders and
Labour Party parliamentarians, no small element of desire to show
radicals in the rank-and-file who was to be master, and to appear to
their Tory and Liberal fellows as responsible and respectable members of
the governing class. What might have been achieved, had
the labor movement retained its capacity for independent political
action across the board, was suggested by the success of the threat of a
general strike in deterring Lloyd George from military intervention
against Soviet Russia on behalf of Poland. But on the
whole, both trade union and Labour Party leadership valued the
appearance of respectability over the pursuit of a radical agenda, as
evidenced by their betrayal of the coal miners in 1920.

Labour continued its self-limiting approach under the MacDonald
government. He consciously limited the Labour agenda to what he could
achieve through cooperation with other parties in the coalition, and
went so far as attempting to dissuade Labour MPs from singing Red Flag,
and otherwise to show “the country” that the Labour Party was a
respectable party, motivated by “national well-being” and not class
considerations. Among other things, he made it clear that
his government would not hesitate to use troops to break

Despite pro forma declarations of support for trade unions in the
General Strike, MacDonald and the rest of the Labour leadership did
their best to appease the Tory Government with assurances that the
Strike was a purely industrial dispute, fully legal and constitutional,
in support of coal miners, and sent out peace feelers to the government
for the duration. The Labour leadership, both in the TUC
and in Parliament, for the most part believed “that a challenge to the
Government through the assertion of working class strength outside
Parliament was wrong…. In fact they half shared, indeed more than
half shared, the Government’s view that the General Strike was a
politically and morally reprehensible venture, undemocratic,
anti-parliamentary, subversive. The Labour leadership “flinched” from
the obvious fact that the Strike had “unmistakable social content,”
involving “the assertion of specific working class claims against
property.” This was particularly offensive to Fabian sensibilities.
Beatrice Webb expressed disdain for the General Strike in terms
comparable to those Hillary Clinton expressed in her thesis on Saul
Alinsky: the proper means for achieving “socialism” was through
government policies implemented by professional political

The failure of the General Strike was a watershed for the future of the
Labour Party. The Party permanently eschewed, not only all attempts by
itself or by unions “to exercise political influence against the
Government of the day by the use of the industrial weapon,” but also
even “militancy over industrial issues.”

The basic contradiction was at no time more apparent than at Labour’s
greatest moment of triumph in 1945, and the period thereafter. The
single biggest failure of the postwar Labour government was Herbert
Morrion’s affection for the capitalist managerial model. This was
foreshadowed by his approach under the national unity cabinet of the

‘Public ownership’ to Morrison meant control by bureaucrats selected ‘on
their ability’ by the minister. When he was minister of transport in
1930, he refused to appoint workers’ representatives to the board of his
new London Transport undertaking. He wanted the undertaking to be run
exclusively by ‘men of a business turn of mind’ which, he explained
graciously, ‘might include such people as trade union bodies as well as
men of business experience in the ordinary sense of the

He was given free rein for his managerialist sympathies in carrying out
the nationalization policy under Atlee, as recounted by Miliband.

Directly related to Morrison’s view of nationalization was the
Executive’s refusal to commit itself to any kind of experiment in
industrial democracy…. At the 1945 Conference, one composite
resolution (later withdrawn) demanded a far more extensive programme of
nationalization and also asked the Party to pledge itself ‘to secure the
democratic control and operation of these (nationalized) institutions by
the workers and technicians’. This latter demand, Morrison said, did not
‘demonstrate good socialization in its method of administration and

Morrison’s management model was a public corporation on the BBC model,
with essentially no worker influence outside the collective bargaining
process. The sense of betrayal on the part of many trade union militants
was considerable. As one coal miner recalled:

I can remember standing at the pit with the banners, celebrating with my
father and his friends. They thought, this was it…. They thought
nationalisation would bring everything they’d fought for. But within a
very short space of time they found out that they’d swapped one boss for
another. The first boss we got was a major from the Indian Army, six
months later followed by Captain Nicholson …. Later we had a banker!

We really believed it would make a difference. We really thought it was
the beginning of socialism, you know, almost time to hoist the red flag.
I thought that we’d be working for ourselves, that we’d be in control.
But in fact the supervision and bureaucratic administration became a
hundred times worse. You’d get 10 foremen where you only had one; you’d
have to use 10 pieces of paper where before you’d only have one.You’d
always have to go through many more channels to get anything done. That
approach killed nationalisation. A lot of us felt really frustrated.
Mind, I still think nationalisation is the only way, but next time it
will have to be different.

In return for the repeal of significant amounts of anti-union
legislation, the Labour government “expected, and received, from the
trade unions a measure of co-operation in the maintenance of industrial
discipline….” And the Labour government used troops as scabs to carry
out essential functions during many of the strikes that did

From the beginning, the nationalization proposals of the Government were
designed to achieve the sole purpose of improving the efficiency of a
capitalist economy, not as marking the beginning of its wholesale

…[T]he Government’s conception of public ownership ensured the
predominance on the boards of the nationalized corporations of men who
had been, or who were, closely associated with private finance and

As Belloc predicted, the coal industry made out better
from its compensation under the nationalization regime “than they could
conceivably have done had the industry remained in private
ownership.” So the Labour Government, in effect, simply
acted as managers on behalf of the capitalists.

By the late 50s Labour under Gaitskell, having shifted to a policy focus
centered on “consolidation” of previous gains and then been turned out
of office altogether, was “obsessed” with the need for “electoral
success” — the “essential condition” for which was “to present the
Labour Party as a moderate and respectable party, free from class bias,
‘national’ in outlook.”

From the beginning, Dan Evans argues, the Labour Party was hampered by a
misapprehension of the role both it and the state played in relation to
the rest of society.

Ultimately this unswerving commitment to parliamentarism condemns the
Labour party to remain a permanent hostage to existing structures of
power — both within parliament itself and throughout wider society — and
to be doomed by the limitations these inevitably place on socialists,
both in government and beyond….

The problem with parliamentarism is that it represents a belief that the
state is neutral….

Evans cites Ralph Miliband and John Saville that, far from being a free
hand to reshape society in a post-capitalist direction through the
control of a neutral state, the reality is that

a power elite, united by a shared class background and a deep
ideological conservatism, are spread throughout British society,
controlling all aspects of it, not just parliament. Thus the tory party,
the judiciary, the media, the education system, the armed forces, the
civil service, the police, and so on are all ideologically united and
vehemently opposed to socialism and a Labour government. They therefore
cannot simply be used as tools of the Labour government, for these state
apparatuses will in practice actively push back and attempt to sabotage
any changes to the status quo and undermine the

Not only does this amount to a class system of defense in depth, Saville
said, but the defensive earthworks include the class enculturation of
the Labour Party political elite itself.

What has never been understood is the nature of economic and political
power in industrial Britain, where two fifths of all private property is
in the hands of one per cent of the adult population: where the wealthy
groups are linked by social background, marriage and top business
positions: where the identity between the wealthy and the politicians of
the Conservative Party is very close; and where all the leading social
and political institutions mirror the dominance of the wealthy classes.
Britain is ruled by an élite which has its main economic basis in
industrial and financial capital but with the old landed classes still
important: its younger members use the leading public schools and Oxford
and Cambridge as their private educational establishments, and the
Conservative Party, the administrative grade of the Civil Service and
the top managerial positions in business and banking as their providers
of earned income. Britain is a profoundly conservative society with a
traditional institutional framework within which political decisions are
taken. The limitations upon the real power of the House of Commons are
such that to accept the conventions of Parliamentary Government means to
accept the impossibility of change that is radical in any meaningful
sense. No leader of the Labour Party has ever considered stepping
outside Parliamentary conventions or going beyond the constitutional
proprieties of Parliament. When, as in the days of the 1926 General
Strike, there was being revealed a naked confrontation of class
interests, the Labour and trade union leadership fell over themselves to
reach a compromise, which in the event became

Of course the existence of a hostile and coopting power elite, its
redoubts distributed in depth throughout society, is not the sole
danger. The parliamentary party’s vulnerability to cooptation lies in
large part in the nature of its own internal structure, and the tendency
— already discussed above — for the leaderships of hierarchical
organizations nominally opposed in their goals to develop ties of
affinity based on their common organizational styles and shared
expertise in the subject matter of the policy issues they confront.

III. The Assault on Working Class Agency

Another authoritarian tendency in the main line of official Marxism, as
it developed in the Old Left, was its mechanistic view of history and
minimization of working class agency and subjectivity.

As with our account above of authoritarian administrative styles, it is
likewise true that Marxism was not a monolith in regard to working class
agency; it had parallel currents emphasizing the working class as the
active agent involved in building the socialist successor society, as
well as those treating the working class as the pawn of historical

If anything, it is arguable that the libertarian focus on the agency of
the working class predominated in the thought of Marx himself — not only
in alleged “juvenalia” like the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts
and Grundrisse, but as an implicit aspect of “mature” works like

In contrast to Lenin’s claim that workers on their own were incapable of
developing anything more than a “trade union consciousness,” both Marx
and Engels repeatedly reaffirmed that the ongoing process of working
class self-activity would, in itself, further the development of class

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx located the origin
of communism as a modern political movement in the conscious experience
of the working class: “The entire movement of history, just as its
[communism’s] actual act of genesis — the birth act of its
empirical existence — is, therefore, for its thinking consciousness the
comprehended and known process of its

The development of communism as a new form of society would emerge from
the working class’s self-development as a conscious historical agent,
conscious of its own power, and would be the doing of the working
class. Communism would be the outgrowth of humanity’s developing
consciousness of itself, and its assertion of control over society, the
natural world, and human nature itself.

Communism as… the real appropriation of the
human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the
complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human)

…[T]he positive transcendence of private property—i.e., the
perceptible appropriation for and by man of the human essence
and of human life, of objective man, of human achievements
should not be conceived merely in the sense of immediate,
one-sided enjoyment, merely in the sense of possessing, of having.
Man appropriates his comprehensive essence in a comprehensive manner,
that is to say, as a whole man.

Although Marx’s analysis in subsequent works became more concrete and
less philosophical, and he wrote considerably less about working class
subjectivity as a primary theme, what he did write on the specific topic
of working class self-activity is fully consistent with his treatment of
the overcoming of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic
. If workers become fully human through communism, and
overcome their alienation from themselves, from their work, from each
other and from nature, it becomes clear in Marx’s work that this
overcoming is a process whose first beginnings are the working class’s
emerging consciousness of itself as a subject through political and
economic struggles, and its continued development of this consciousness
and constitution of itself as a class.

Note that working class subjectivity specifically refers to its growing
awareness of itself as a class with interests of its own against other
classes, and its activity in constituting itself as a class. And
everything Marx writes subsequently on the political and economic
activity of the working class is consistent with an analogous
understanding of the working class as subject.

And the very process of the working class constituting itself as a
class, as a conscious subject with class solidarity and an active agent
in society, at the same time entails creating the first kernel of the
future communist society:

When communist artisans associate with one another, theory,
propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result
of this association, they acquire a new need — the need for society —
and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process
the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist
workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating,
etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together.
Association, society and conversation, which again has association as
its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase
with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us
from their work-hardened bodies.

The revolutionary consciousness of the working class is not the passive
result of their material circumstances, but emerges from their conscious
activity in response to the material conditions they confront.

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism — that of
Feuerbach included — is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is
conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not
as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively….

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and
upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is
essential to educate the educator himself….

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity
or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as
revolutionary practice.

In The German Ideology Marx argued that the working class would
acquire the capability of ultimately transcending all the various
estrangements of capitalism in communist society through its growing
consciousness of itself and constitution of itself as a class in the
struggle against capitalism.

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness,
and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass
scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a
practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary,
therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any
other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a
revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become
fitted to found society anew.

Engels argued in Condition of the Working Class that strikes, even
when defeated, furthered the development of working class consciousness
and praxis. From the experience of limited success in individual strikes
on an issue-by-issue basis, workers would learn the need to organize on
a class-wide basis.

But what gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real
importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to
abolish competition….

The laws determining the rate of wages would, indeed, come into force
again in the long run, if the working-men did not go beyond this step of
abolishing competition among themselves. But they must go beyond that
unless they are prepared to recede again and to allow competition among
themselves to reappear. Thus once advanced so far, necessity compels
them to go farther; to abolish not only one kind of competition, but
competition itself altogether, and that they will do.

The workers are coming to perceive more clearly with every day how
competition affects them; they see far more clearly than the bourgeois
that competition of the capitalists among themselves presses upon the
workers too, by bringing on commercial crises, and that this kind of
competition, too, must be abolished. They will soon learn how they
have to go about it.

The incredible frequency of these strikes proves best of all to what
extent the social war has broken out all over England. No week passes,
scarcely a day, indeed, in which there is not a strike in some
direction…. These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in
weighty struggles; they decide nothing, it is true, but they are the
strongest proof that the decisive battle between bourgeoisie and
proletariat is approaching. They are the military school of the
working-men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle
which cannot be avoided….

And as the English working class came to perceive bourgeois law as the
instrument of its exploitation, it increasingly turned to political
action in addition to unionism. The Chartist movement, after the
bourgeoisie defected to Liberalism in the face of working class
radicalism and the movement took on a fully working class character, was
the first step in this process.

Marx, in Poverty of Philosophy, argued that conflicts like strikes
would continue to escalate into full-scale civil war, causing the
proletariat to emerge as a “class for itself.”

If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages,
combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as
the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and
in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association
becomes more necessary to them than that of wages…. In this struggle —
a veritable civil war — all the elements necessary for a coming battle
unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on
a political character.

In his September 1850 remarks to the Central Committee of the Communist
League, he said “You have fifteen, twenty, or fifty years of civil war
and popular struggle to carry out, not only to change the relationships
[i.e. build the “living relationships” that are “the driving force of
the revolution”] but to change yourself and enable yourself to rule

As Michael Harrington put it: “In Marx’s perspective, it was the
democratic self-organization of the proletariat that was the truly
radical act — even if it initially took reformist

As late as the third volume of Capital, Marx writes of humanity as an
active agent in bringing nature under conscious control.

…the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is
determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the
very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material
production…. With his development this realm of physical necessity
expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of
production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this
field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers,
rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under
their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind
forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of
energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their
human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity.
Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in
itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth
only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the
working-day is its basic prerequisite.

Engels himself, in Anti-Dühring, describes the victorious proletariat
in terms it’s hard not to read as a celebration of human dignity and

Then for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off
from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal
conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the
conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man,
now comes under the dominion and control of man who for the first time
becomes the real, conscious lord of nature because he has now become
master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social
action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature
foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full
understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation,
hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history,
now becomes the result of his own free action…. Only from that time
will man himself, with full consciousness, make his own history…. It
is the humanity’s leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of

Nevertheless, the primary effect of Engels, in systematizing Marxism
after Marx’s death, was a negative one. Engels reframed Marx’s
philosophy of history in much more mechanistic terms. Engels claimed to
base his formulation of Marxist historical materialism on a literal
reading of the famous paragraphs in Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to
the Critique of Political Economy
; but according to James White,

whereas for Marx behind the economic base lurked human Society, the
economic structure being only the materialized form of man’s
species-being, for Engels the economic base was the ultimate determining

‘Society’ for Engels became not a determining
factor, but one determined. With Engels, history was no longer centered
in human Society, but outside it in the economic

At the same time, in his pamphlet Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels obscured
how Marx’s ideas had emerged from those of Schelling, Hegel and the
Young Hegelians, and substituted an account of his own relationship to
the Hegelians in the 1840s for that of Marx and presented it as

Plekhanov continued the development of Marxism into a mechanistic parody
of itself. Marx himself saw human nature as constant, of a social
character; the different relations of production and the superstructures
built on them were all alienated versions of this social nature, and
history was a process in which humanity worked through these successive
forms of alienation towards the finalization of its own social nature in
non-alienated form. Plekhanov took the position — which he attributed to
Marx — that human nature was variable and was determined from the
outside by historical influences.

Peter Hudis describes the “objectivist” strains of Marxism — which
understand Marx’s critique of capital as “an analysis of objective forms
that assume complete self-determination and automaticity” — as holding

…Marx’s most important contribution lies in his understanding of
capital as an autonomous force that takes on a life of its own, totally
subsuming the will and actions of the human subject…. They therefore
view capital not only as the subject of Marx’s theoretical work but as
the Subject of modern society.

Compare the humanism of Marx at its height with the atmosphere of the
Old Left as it emerged in the 20th century. In particular contrast the
consistent focus of Marx, on the subjective experience of the working
class from the inside, and its development in political consciousness
as a result of its own experience of struggle, with Lenin’s focus in
What Is To Be Done? on revolutionary consciousness as something
brought to the working class from outside. In every case the workers
are the recipient of knowledge given to them outside; in every case he
speaks of the intelligentsia “elevating” or “training” workers who, left
to themselves, would never progress beyond “economism” and “trade union

Of course for all of Marx’s emphasis on the self-activity and growing
self-awareness of the working class, even at his best, it was the
development of an agency and subjectivity whose most important
expression would be seizing power to begin the work of actually building
socialism, after capitalism was finished developing productive forces to
the greatest extent possible under the present system. Cooperatives and
unions were useful as a sort of school of revolutionary consciousness,
but the actual construction of the productive forces of socialism, until
the revolutionary rupture occurred, was largely the work of monopoly
capital itself and not an interstitial process that would be
accomplished to any significant extent before then.

As Rosa Luxemburg put it, trade union activity

creates the subjective factor of the socialist transformation, for the
task of realising socialism….

[A]s a result of its trade union and parliamentary struggles, the
proletariat becomes convinced, of the impossibility of accomplishing a
fundamental social change through such activity and arrives at the
understanding that the conquest of power is unavoidable.

But such activity was not, in the orthodox Social Democratic view, a way
to “realize objectively the desired social change.”

Although Marx’s position on working class agency and self-activity was
arguably multifaceted and not monolithic, the dominant tendency of his
thought could be summarized by the statement in the 1864 Rules of the
IWMA (of which Marx was a principal editor) “[t]hat the emancipation of
the working classes must be conquered by the working classes
themselves.” And despite his later role in the
formulation of a more mechanistic version of Marxism, Engels himself
stated in his 1872 Preface to the German edition of the Communist
Manifesto that the same principle — slightly reworded as “the
emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself”
— had been “our notion… from the beginning.”

And if this principle is treated as a mostly consistent theme of Marx’s
thought, it gives the lie to dismissals of the “early humanistic Marx”
as a youthful phase that Marx grew beyond in his “mature” work. The idea
of the working class as author of its own self-emancipation flows
directly from Marx’s early inversions, first of Hegel and then of
Feuerbach, and his focus on humanity’s overcoming of its alienation from
its own self-activity and assertion of mastery over all of nature
including society and human nature. In the words of Isaiah Berlin,
history is

the struggle of men to realise their full human potentialities; and
since they are members of the natural kingdom…, man’s effort to
realise himself fully is a striving to escape from being the plaything
of forces that seem at once mysterious, arbitrary and irresistible, that
is, to attain to the mastery of himself, which is freedom. Man attains
this subjugation of his world… by activity, by labour…. History is
the interaction between the lives of the actors, the men engaged in the
struggle for attaining self-direction, and the consequences of their

Even so, the mechanistic focus was clearly predominant, first in the
official Marxist ideology of the Second International, and then taken to
self-parody levels in the “diamat” of the Comintern.

IV. Workerism/Laborism

Like its affinity for mass and organization, the Old Left’s workerism —
its tendency to lionize the industrial proletariat as revolutionary
subject and its organizational forms as a paradigm for the future
society — go back to the earliest days of Marxism itself. Witness the
Communist Manifesto:

In the condition of the proletariat, those of old society at large are
already virtually swamped. The proletarian is without property; his
relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with
the bourgeois family relations; modern industry labour, modern
subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as
in Germany, has stripped him of every trace of national character. Law,
morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind
which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.

All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify
their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their
conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of
the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own
previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous
mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to
fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and
insurances of, individual property.

But at least Marx envisioned post-capitalist society in much less
workerist terms than his Old Left disciples of the 20th century.
Communist society entailed the proletariat’s abolition of itself as
such, and the creation of a society which abolished both the
work/enjoyment opposition and the division of labor. In The German
he wrote that for communists, “the basis of this whole
opposition between work and enjoyment disappears.” And
with the disappearance of the capitalist wage relationship as an
authority over and above the individual capable of imposing a division
of labor against their wishes, would come a society in which

nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become
accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general
production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and
another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear
cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind,
without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or

Further, in his 1845 draft of a critique of Friedrich List, he treated
labor itself (in the sense of alienated labor imposed by capital and the
wage system as superior authorities) as something to be superseded under

it is established… that his [the worker’s] activity is not a free
manifestation of his human life, that it is, rather, a huckstering sale
of his forces, an alienation (sale) to capital of his one-sidedly
developed abilities, in a word, that it is “labour.”… “Labour” is
the living basis of private property, it is private property as the
creative source of itself. Private property is nothing but objectified
labour. If it is desired to strike a mortal blow at private property,
one must attack it not only as a material state of affairs, but also
as activity, as labour. It is one of the greatest misapprehensions
to speak of free, human, social labour, of labour without private
property. “Labour” by its very nature is unfree, unhuman, unsocial
activity, determined by private property and creating private property.
Hence the abolition of private property will become a reality only when
it is conceived as the abolition of “labour” (an abolition which, of
course, has become possible only as a result of labour itself, that is
to say, has become possible as a result of the material activity of

Marx also makes it clear that these are not goals to be achieved in the
distant future, after a prolonged period of building “full communism.”
Self-actualization through the maximization of free time, and the
transition from the “realm of necessity” to the “realm of freedom,”
rather, are things to be achieved through an ongoing process that begins
the instant workers gain control of society.

From the very beginning, the goal of minimizing work time, prioritizing
free time for all-sided human development, and recognizing the worker’s
sovereignty over their own time, is implicitly recognized in the way
Marx envisions work-time, in Critique of the Gotha Program, as the
basis by which the associated workers will divide the product of their
collective labor among themselves. The measure is not work accomplished,
or value, according to some standard of socially necessary labor; it is
work-time, multiplied by comparative “intensity” — which means the
subjective effort or energy expenditure experienced by the worker, not
productivity — which governs the worker’s share of
consumption. Such a measure, by treating the amount of
free time a worker sacrifices and their subjective experience of
difficulty or unpleasantness as a claim to a share in the social
product, implies (1) the primacy of the workers’ claim to their free
time and personal development, and their entitlement to a share in the
product based on their sacrifice of these things, and (2) the social
goal of minimizing their sacrifice. And the reduction of the total
amount of labor expended for an abundant standard of living, and the
achievement of a post-scarcity society in which labor is decoupled from
consumption altogether and the distinction between work and leisure
disappears, is a process that begins with the establishment of

Marx’s vision in The German Ideology of the abolition of
“division of labor” as something imposed from above, and of the free
individual constantly shifting from one activity to another as she sees
fit, is entirely compatible with even the earliest period of working
class power. If the worker is free to work the number of hours she
pleases, on condition of her consumption share being allocated
accordingly, and she can choose among whatever work openings the
associated workers post that she possesses the skills for, from one day
to the next, this is a state of affairs very close to Marx’s

In comparison, the Old Left’s vision of the role of work in society
resembles a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: grim-faced workers in
overalls trudging in formation into a factory. If this strikes the
reader as hyperbole, consider the celebration of Stakhanovites and other
“Hero Workers” under Stalin, or the CNT’s attempts to enforce
work-discipline over worker-managed factories in Spain.

Guy Standing used the term “labourism” to describe the tendency on the
Old Left (including Leninist Communism, Social Democracy and CIO-style
industrial unionism). Unlike earlier socialist and anarchist models that
looked forward to increasing leisure and autonomy, dissolution of the
boundary between work and the rest of life, and a shrinkage of both the
cash nexus and the wage system, social democracy and industrial unionism
presupposed universal full-time employment at wage labor as the norm.
They aimed at “full employment” with good wages, benefits and job
security, with the understanding that management would be allowed to
manage and labor would stay out of matters regarded as “management
prerogatives” in return for these things. The “full employment” agenda

all men in full-time jobs. Besides being sexist, this neglected all
forms of work that were not labour (including reproductive work in the
home, caring for others, work in the community, and other self-chosen
activities). It also erased a vision of freedom from labour that had
figured powerfully in radical thinking in previous ages.

[Last edited October 5, 2020]

Chapter Two: Transition

All the justifications for an anti-capitalist movement centered on
large-scale institutions or mass organizations, or for a transitional
model based on insurrectionary seizure of the means of production,
reflect the technological realities of the Industrial Revolution from
the mid-19th century on — and particularly of the mass-production era in
the 20th century.

The material and technological assumptions behind such approaches have
lost their relevance in recent decades, and are entirely obsolete now.

To the extent that the old mass-based, insurrectionist model had any
valid basis in material conditions, it ended with the mass production
age. We no longer need to storm the ramparts of those old state and
industrial hierarchies because most of them no longer perform any
socially necessary function. Cheap, small-scale physical production
technologies and distributed, stigmergic coordination mechanisms have
made it possible to build a society mostly outside the old institutional
framework, and leave the old institutions to crumble.

I. Drastic Reductions in Necessary Outlays for the Means of

Physical Production. The original material rationale
for both the wage system and the factory system, as they emerged in the
First Industrial Revolution (i.e., the application of steam power to
production), was technological. It involved the transition from artisan
production with general-purpose craft tools that were individually
affordable, to factory production with extremely expensive specialized
machinery acquired by one or more rich absentee owners, who then hired
laborers to work it. Large capital outlays for industrial machinery, and
the large scale of production, meant that organizational mass was
necessary to undertake modern forms of production.

Technological change is radically cheapening physical production and
reducing it in scale. As early as 1971, Murray Bookchin was arguing for
a decentralized industrial model based on small-scale craft production
using multiple-purpose machines, switching frequently between short runs
of a wide variety of products on a demand-pull basis as orders came
in. Colin Ward and Karl Hess proposed community
workshops making use of power tools pooled by neighborhood hobbyists,
along with second-hand machine tools from machine shops, high school
shop classes and the like. Such shops could be used for
repairing appliances, custom-machining the replacement parts necessary
to keep them going, or remanufacturing defunct items like refrigerators.

The emergence of relatively small-scale CNC machine tools in the ‘70s
reduced the cost of digitally-controlled production machinery by an
order of magnitude and made craft production in smaller shops feasible.
It enabled the rise of networked cooperative production in
Emilia-Romagna, as well as the corporate outsourcing of a growing share
of production to independent job shops in Asia.

The revolution in even smaller and cheaper tabletop CNC tools since the
turn of the century, along with the open source hardware, Fab Lab and
hackerspace movements, has reduced the cost of necessary machinery by
another order of magnitude and made it possible to carry out, in a
garage shop with a few tens of thousands of dollars worth of open-source
machinery, many kinds of production that would have required a
multi-million dollar factory fifty years ago.

As an example of the possibilities, consider the Global Village
Construction Set, developed by Open Source Ecology at their demo site,
Factor E Farm. It’s an entire modular ecosystem of machines with
interchangeable modules used in multiple machine designs. Along with the
micro-manufacturing machinery (3D printer, laser cutter, drill press and
fourteen other machines), the GVCS includes construction machinery
(sawmill, compressed earth block maker, etc.), farm machinery (tractor,
etc.), and household production goods like a bread oven.

All of the designs are complete, the great majority have been
prototyped, and many or most are in actual production. Most of the
components of the machines — many of which, like the power transmission
system, are modular and used throughout the entire machine ecology — can
be produced with the Construction Set’s own machine tools, and the
inclusion of an induction furnace in the manufacturing collection means
they can smelt metal from local scrap.

Their website has a table of the prices of the various machines, either
materials alone or materials plus labor, compared to their proprietary
commercial counterparts. Most of the individual
manufacturing machines can be made for anywhere from under a thousand to
a few thousand dollars in materials, and hence are suited to an
individual garage-size workshop; a few of the most expensive items (e.g.
$18,000 for an induction furnace, $13,000 for a rod and wire mill, or
$50,000 for a machine to extract aluminum from clay) would obviously
have to be a shared resource between a number of shops in a larger

It’s impossible to overstate the practical significance of this, from
the standpoint of labor. The availability of a garage factory’s worth of
high-tech craft machinery at the equivalent of several months factory
wages — and still rapidly falling — is a direct reversal of the earlier
transition from craft to factory tools.

The cost of capital goods was the central factor in the success or
failure of worker cooperatives. According to John Curl, the first major
wave of American worker cooperatives was organized through the National
Trades’ Union in the 1830s. As with the Owenite trade union cooperatives
in Britain, they were occurred mostly in craft industries in which the
basic tools of the trade were relatively inexpensive.

Worker cooperatives were a frequent resort of striking workers in the
early history of America. For example in 1768 twenty striking journeyman
tailors in New York, in the first strike by wage-workers in American
history, set up their own cooperative workshop. In 1761, journeyman
carpenters in Philadelphia striking for the ten-hour day formed a
cooperative and undercut their master’s price by 25%; they disbanded the
co-op when they went back to work. The same tactic was used by
shoemakers in Baltimore, 1794, and Philadelphia, 1806.

This pattern recurred throughout American labor history so long as
artisan production prevailed, and the organization of cooperatives
expanded from being purely a strike tactic to providing an alternative
to wage labor. Its feasibility depended on the predominance of artisan
production with hand tools in most industries. But by the 1840s, the
rise of factory production with expensive machinery had fundamentally
altered this state of affairs. As the means of production became
prohibitively expensive, the majority of the labor force was relegated
to factory employment for wages, with machinery owned by someone

But with the technological developments described earlier — the rise of
digitally controlled machine tools comparable in price, in relative
terms, to the artisan tools of 200 years ago — this process has
reversed. The cost of physical means of production, in a growing share
of industries, is no longer the bottleneck factor which restricts
cooperative production.

Immaterial Production. What cheap micro-manufacturing technology has
done for physical production, the personal computer and Internet did for
immaterial production. As Michel Piore and Charles Sabel argue, the
desktop computer is “a machine that meets Marx’s definition of an
artisan’s tool: it is an instrument that responds to and extends the
productive capacities of the user.”

The desktop computer is the primary item of capital equipment in a
number of forms of immaterial production — music, desktop publishing,
and software, in particular. Supplemented by assorted packages of
rapidly cheapening printing, sound editing, etc., equipment, it can do
things in the publishing, music and broadcast industries that once
required initial capital outlays of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The old mass media, according to Yochai Benkler, were “typified by
high-cost hubs and cheap, ubiquitous, reception-only systems at the
end.” Hence production was limited to “those that could collect
sufficient funds to set up a hub.”

But the new Internet-era communications system is distinguished, rather,
by “network architecture and the [low] cost of becoming a speaker.” The
cost of owning a node is drastically reduced, and the old hub-and-spoke
architecture is replaced by many-to-many connections among all
nodes. And this is made possible, again, by the fact
that “the basic physical capital necessary to express and communicate
human meaning is the connected personal computer.”

Way back in 2003 Tom Coates noted that, thanks to desktop- and
browser-based utilities, open-source productivity software, and the like
— much of which was far superior to the proprietary, gold-plated turd
versions their employers forced them to work with — “the gap between
what can be accomplished at home and what can be accomplished in a work
environment has narrowed dramatically over the last ten to fifteen

Distributed Energy Systems. In addition to all the benefits of
cheap, decentralized physical and immaterial production technology, the
collapse in prices for off-grid (as well as micro-grid connected)
alternative energy generation has greatly increased the possibility for
economic autonomy.

Writers ranging from Murray Bookchin to Whole Earth and the Radical
Technology group to Amory Lovins have been promoting renewable, off-grid
energy as a liberatory technology for decades. But only in recent years
has it increased in generating capacity and fallen in cost sufficiently
to take up the burden of supporting at least a roughly “modern” standard
of living (for want of a better word), even with a rational
reconfiguration of society and the abolition of waste production.

Between 2010 and 2019, solar generation capacity fell 73% in cost, while
that of lithium ion batteries fell 80%. Two aspects of
alternative energy technologies, in particular, are of importance for
their liberatory potential.

…[M]ost renewables take the form of flows, whilst fossil fuels are
stocks. Energy stocks can be stored, which is useful; but they can be
used only once. In contrast, energy flows do not exhaust themselves and
are harder to disrupt.

…[R]enewable energy sources can be deployed at almost any scale and lend
themselves better to decentralized forms of energy production and
consumption. This adds to the democratizing effects of renewable

Implications. As outlays for physical capital fall, “human capital”
— skill, social relationships, distributed knowledge of the work process
— increasingly becomes the primary source of value creation, as well as
of the book value of the enterprise. Even where physical production
technology is a major source of productivity, the primary means of
extracting rents from it is not the necessary material cost of producing
the technology but the legal barriers to replicating it. And even in
physical production, the worker’s unique knowledge of how best to
employ existing physical capital matters more to productivity than the
amount of capital employed. Luigi Zingales observes that physical
assets, “which used to be the major source of rents, have become less
unique and are not commanding large rents anymore.” Rather, “the demand
for process innovation and quality improvement… can only be generated by
talented employees….”

This has always been true, of course. But as the cost of physical means
of production implodes from technological advance, and a larger share of
the economy shifts to immaterial production or services, it becomes true
to a much larger degree.

From the point of view of this study the important point is that as the
value of human capital increases, and the cost of physical capital
investments needed for independent production by human capital
decreases, the power of corporate hierarchies becomes less and less
relevant. As the value of human relative to physical capital increases,
the entry barriers become progressively lower for workers to take their
human capital outside the firm and start new firms under their own

The primary source of corporate power over workers is no longer
ownership of the machinery used by workers, but intangible property
rights of various sorts that act as artificial barriers restricting
human capital’s independent right to engage in production. The
capitalists’ profits increasingly depend, not on ownership of the means
of production, but on control of the right to use them — the ownership
of patents rather than machines, along with other monopolies like
non-competition contracts in service industries where human capital is
the main source of equity. But this intermediate stage, capitalism’s
last desperate attempt to snatch scarcity from the jaws of abundance, is
doomed to failure.

So, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt put it, capital plays less and
less of an organizing role, and becomes increasingly entirely parasitic
on the productive organization of the multitude itself.

In general, the hegemony of immaterial labor tends to transform the
organization of production from the linear relationships of the assembly
line to the innumerable and indeterminate relationships of distributed
networks. Information, communication, and cooperation become the norms
of production, and the network becomes its dominant form of
organization…. [E]xploitation under the hegemony of immaterial labor
is no longer primarily the expropriation of value measured by individual
or collective labor time but rather the capture of value that is
produced by cooperative labor and that becomes increasingly common
through its circulation in social networks. The central forms of
productive cooperation are no longer created by the capitalist as part
of the project to organize labor but rather emerge from the productive
energies of labor itself.

…Marx insists that one of the great progressive elements of capital
historically is to organize armies of workers in cooperative productive
relationships. The capitalist calls workers to the factory…, directing
them to collaborate and communicate in production and giving them the
means to do so. In the paradigm of immaterial production, in contrast,
labor itself tends to produce the means of interaction, communication,
and cooperation for production directly…. [I]n immaterial production
the creation of cooperation has become internal to labor and thus
external to capital.

…Produced relationships and communication are by their very nature
common, and yet capital manages to appropriate privately some of their

For Negri, this decline in capital’s organizing role is of great
significance. Marx argued that the proletariat was a class in
itself because it had been brought together by capital and performed a
functional role. But it could only become a class for itself when,
having been brought together by capital and begun to function together
under the direction of capital, it developed its own consciousness as
subject. The growing importance of our self-organization and initiative
outside the factory, however, means that the revolutionary subject no
longer has to come alive like a golem, from materials brought together
by capital.

…[C]ommonism is much more feasible today than in the previous situation,
in which the workers were organized and brought together by capital.
Before, the workers were brought together, they did not come together of
their own initiative. This is no longer the case and precisely this
means an enormous boost for the possibilities….

Marx has said of the working classes that they were made by capital and
that therefore it was necessary for them to become aware of their
situation through a political party, an external organization, an
ideology, et cetera, in order to become political. Today we see a
maturity and an original organization, so to speak, thanks to the
transformation that occurred in labour and society.

Not only capital but rulers have become superfluous, in organizing
society: “the balance has tipped such

that the ruled now tend to be the exclusive producers of social
organization. This does not mean that sovereignty immediately crumbles
and the rulers lose all their power. It does mean that the rulers become
ever more parasitical and that sovereignty becomes increasingly

Note: None of the material immediately above should be taken to mean we
accept Negri and Hardt’s analytical framework uncritically. Their
analysis refers primarily to the “social factory,” which is subsumed
under capital. But every point they make about the superfluity of
capital within ththat context applies even more strongly to the
“outside” of capital (the counter-economy of direct production for use
in the commons, within the interstices of capitalism but outside
capitalist control).

II. The Network Revolution and the Imploding Cost of Coordination

In the received understanding of the mass-production era, the enormous
cost of production machinery and concomitant large scale of production
required not only large organizations to purchase the production
machinery and coordinate production, but such production by giant
institutions on a national scale required an entire ecology of other
large institutions for providing the necessary inputs and supports,
coordinating the relations between such institutions, and for correcting
and stabilizing their negative externalities.

For the Old Left in particular, this implied a post-capitalist
transition model centered on the political seizure of control over all
these large institutions — and hence the need for large institutions of
their own like vanguard revolutionary parties on the Leninist model,
parliamentary parties like Labour, or One Big Union, and a strategy
based on mass coordination, in order to carry out such a takeover.

Whether for the corporate and state managerial bureaucracies under
capitalism, the large industrial unions and political parties of the
Left, or the central planning and industrial management apparatus of the
post-1917 state socialist regimes, this institutional model required
authoritarian policies like Weberian job-descriptions, Taylorist work
rules, “best practices,” etc., all of which reduced the discretion of
the very people with the most knowledge of the production process and
subjected them to interference from those who knew the least.

The primary characteristic of coordination by a hierarchy is that
everyone needs to be on the same page for anything to get done. Strict
controls must be placed on individual initiative lest any variance
disrupt the performance of the entire organization — even if this means
a severe constraint on individual initiative. As a result, there are
long delays before the organization can react to new events, or assess
the effects of its own policies. And because such organizations are
slow-reacting dinosaurs, and have long planning horizons, they must
minimize the amount of disruption from their outside environment.
Because of the inability to leverage small contributions from individual
actors responding to situations on their own initiative, and the high
cost of formulating any policy with the full resources of the
organization, they must limit their flexibility in dealing with unique
situations and tailor their policies primarily to the most common or
typical situations at the center of the bell curve.

The rise of the World Wide Web with its many-to-many architecture, the
creation of platforms and utilities for organizing projects and making
many forms of clerical work unnecessary, and the rise of networked and
stigmergic organizational models, together mean that activities by many
actors can be coordinated through horizontal relations among the actors
themselves. Large institutions are no longer necessary for most things.

In 2002 Yochai Benkler coined the term “commons-based peer production”
as a “third mode of production,” alongside Coase’s earlier dichotomy
between individual responses to market signals and internal management
by corporate bureaucracy as the two ways of coordinating
production. Commons-based peer production

is better than firms and markets for two reasons. First, it is better at
identifying and assigning human capital to information and cultural
production processes. In this regard, peer production has an advantage
in what I call “information opportunity cost.” That is, it loses less
information about who the best person for a given job might be than
either of the other two organizational modes. Second, there are
substantial increasing returns, in terms of allocation efficiency, to
allowing larger clusters of potential contributors to interact with
large clusters of information resources in search of new projects and
opportunities for collaboration.

Commons-based peer production has emerged on a large scale primarily in
fields associated with networked communications technology. It has done
so because such technology overcomes the transaction costs that Coase
identified with the need for hierarchical coordination.
It has also tended to emerge in areas where human capital, rather than
physical capital, is the main source of value creation, because its
increased efficiency in motivating and coordinating human effort is a
central advantage of commons-based peer production.

The advantage of commons-based peer production is that all decisions are
reserved to those best qualified to make them, and these agents are
identified by self-selection.

Commons-based peer production… relies on decentralized information
gathering and exchange to reduce the uncertainty of participants, and
has particular advantages as an information process for identifying
human creativity available to work on information and cultural resources
in the pursuit of projects, and as an allocation process for allocating
that creative effort. It depends on very large aggregations of
individuals independently scouring their information environment in
search of opportunities to be creative in small or large increments.
These individuals then self-identify for tasks and perform them…. If
the problems of motivation and organization can be solved, however, then
such a system has two major advantages over firms and markets. First, it
places the point of decision about assigning any given person to any
given set of resources with the individual…. What peer production does
is provide a framework, within which individuals who have the best
information available about their own fit for a task can self-identify
for the task. This provides an information gain over firms and markets,
but only if the system develops some mechanism to filter out mistaken
judgments agents make about themselves. This is why practically all
successful peer production systems have a robust mechanism for peer
review or statistical weeding out of contributions from agents who
misjudge themselves.

…Peer production has an advantage over firms and markets because it
allows larger groups of individuals to scour larger groups of resources
in search of materials, projects, collaborations, and combinations than
do firms or individuals who function in markets. This is because when
production is organized on a market or firm model, transaction costs
associated with property and contract limit the access of people to each
other, to resources and to projects, but do not do so when it is
organized on a peer production model.

Benkler’s reservation concerning problems of organization and motivation
is the reason why such stigmergic coordination (a concept which I
discuss below) is ill-suited to the capitalist firm, and instead
requires a third mode of production. A hierarchical, absentee-owned
business firm has fundamental conflicts of interest baked into it that
impede the incentive of production workers to use their best judgement
or give their best effort, and make it unsafe for superiors to trust
subordinates with discretion. The capitalist business firm must resort
to suboptimal forms of coordination, despite efficiency losses, as an
inescapable cost of an organization designed to enable absentee owners
and managerial hierarchies to extract surpluses from those engaged in
production. As Benkler put it, “no one will invest in a project if they
cannot appropriate its benefits.”

Part of the solution to the motivation problem, especially in cases
where the overall project is not a money-making effort and participants
receive no monetary remuneration, is that the specific tasks are
self-assigned based entirely on interest. In addition, when such
stigmergic coordination is incorporated into the operations of a
worker-owned and -managed firm — a case in which Benkler shows
comparatively little interest — the motivation problem is greatly
reduced by the fact that no stratum of absentee owners or managers is
able to expropriate productivity gains created by producers.

Stigmergy and Permissionless Organization. “Stigmergy” is a term
coined by biologist Pierre-Paul Grasse in the 1950s to describe the
process by which termites coordinate their activity. Social insects like
termites and ants coordinate their efforts through the independent
responses of individuals to environmental triggers like chemical
markers, without any need for a central coordinating
authority. The concept was subsequently applied to the
analysis of human society.

Applied by way of analogy to human society, Francis Heylighen argues,
stigmergy refers primarily to the kinds of networked organization
associated with wikis, group blogs, and “leaderless” organizations
configured along the lines of networked cells.

The termites do not communicate about who is to do what how or when.
Their only communication is indirect: the partially executed work of the
ones provides information to the others about where to make their own
contribution. In this way, there is no need for a centrally controlled
plan, workflow, or division of labor.

While people are of course much more intelligent than social insects and
do communicate, open access development uses essentially the same
stigmergic mechanism…: any new or revised document or software
component uploaded to the site of a community is immediately scrutinized
by the members of the community that are interested to use it. When one
of them discovers a shortcoming, such as a bug, error or lacking
functionality, that member will be inclined to either solve the problem
him/herself, or at least point it out to the rest of the community,
where it may again entice someone else to take up the

Mark Elliott, in his doctoral dissertation on stigmergy, contrasts
stigmergic coordination with social negotiation. Social negotiation is
the traditional method of organizing collaborative group efforts,
through agreements and compromise mediated by discussions between
individuals. The exponential growth in the number of communications with
the size of the group, obviously, imposes constraints on the feasible
size of a collaborative group, before coordination must be achieved by
hierarchy and top-down authority. Stigmergy, on the other hand, permits
collaboration on an unlimited scale by individuals acting independently.
This distinction between social negotiation and stigmergy is
illustrated, in particular, by the contrast between traditional models
of co-authoring and collaboration in a wiki. Individuals
communicate indirectly, “via the stigmergic medium.”

Gus diZerega’s discussion of spontaneous orders closely parallels the
concept of stigmergy: Spontaneous orders

arise from networks of independent equals whose actions generate
positive and negative feedback that help guide future actors in pursuing
their own independently conceived plans, thereby continuing the feedback
process. Each person is a node within a network and is linked by
feedback, with each node free to act on its own. The feedback they
generate minimizes the knowledge anyone needs about the system as a
whole in order to succeed within it.

All spontaneous orders possess certain abstract features in common.
Participants are equal in status and all are equally subject to whatever
rules must be followed to participate within the order. All are free to
apply these rules to any project of their choosing. Anything that can be
pursued without violating a rule is permitted, including pursuing
mutually contradictory goals. Finally, these rules facilitate
cooperation among strangers based on certain broadly shared values that
are simpler than the values actually motivating many people when they
participate. Compared to human beings, spontaneous orders are

Permissionlessness is a central characteristic of stigmergic
organization. David de Ugarte quotes the Rand theorists John Arquilla
and David Ronfeldt, in “Swarming and the Future of Conflict.” In Netwar,

many small units “already know what they must do,” and are aware that
“they must communicate with each other not in order to prepare for
action, but only as a consequence of action, and, above all, through

Stigmergy transcends the old right-left debates of “individualism” vs.
“collectivism.” It synthesizes the highest realizations of both
individualism and collectivism, and represents each of them in its most
completely actualized form, without qualifying or impairing either in
any way.

Stigmergy is not “collectivist” in the traditional sense, as it was
understood in the days when a common effort on any significant scale
required a large organization to represent the collective, and the
administrative coordination of individual efforts through a hierarchy.
But it is the ultimate realization of collectivism, in that it removes
the transaction costs involved in concerted action by many individuals.

It is the ultimate realization of individualism because all actions are
the free, permissionless actions of individuals; the “collective” is
simply the sum total of individual actions. Every individual is free to
formulate any innovation she sees fit, and every individual or voluntary
association of individuals is likewise free to adopt the innovation, or
not, as they see fit. The extent to which any innovation is adopted
results entirely from the unanimous consent of every voluntary grouping
that adopts it. Each innovation is modular (meaning, as Benkler
explains, that the project “can be broken down into smaller
components… that can be independently produced before they are
assembled into a whole”), and may be adopted into any
number of larger projects if it is found useful. Any grouping where
there is disagreement over adoption may fork and replicate their project
with or without the innovation.

In this regard it attains the radical democratic ideal of unanimous
consent of the governed, which is never completely possible under
any representative or majoritarian system. Consent — the individual’s
participation in the decisions that affected her — was the central value
of Jeffersonian democracy (at least as stated). The smaller the unit of
governance, and the closer it was to the individual, the closer it
approached the ideal of unanimous consent to all acts of government.
Hence Jefferson’s proposed ward republics, whose chief virtue was the
increased role of each individual in influencing the outcome of policy.
But this ideal can only be fully attained when the unit of governance is
the individual. So majority rule was the lesser evil, a way to
approximate as closely as possible to the spirit of unanimous consent in
cases where an entire group of people had to be bound by a single
decision. Stigmergy removes the need for any individual to be bound by
the group will. When all group actions reflect the unanimous will of the
participants, as permitted by stigmergic organization, the ideal of
unanimous consent is finally achieved in its fullness.

Group action is facilitated with greater ease and lower transaction
costs than ever before, but all “group actions” are the unanimous
actions of the participating individuals. As described by Heather Marsh:

With stigmergy, an initial idea is freely given, and the project is
driven by the idea, not by a personality or group of personalities. No
individual needs permission… or consensus… to propose an idea or
initiate a project. There is no need to discuss or vote on the idea, if
an idea is exciting or necessary it will attract interest. The interest
attracted will be from people actively involved in the system and
willing to put effort into carrying the project further, not empty votes
from people with little interest or involvement…. Stigmergy also puts
individuals in control over their own work, they do not need group
permission to tell them what system to work on or what part to

The person with the initial idea may or may not carry the task further.
Evangelizing the idea is voluntary, by a group that is excited by the
idea; they may or may not be the ones to carry it out. It is unnecessary
to seek start up funding and supporters; if an idea is good it will
receive the support required…. Secrecy and competition is unnecessary
because once an idea is given, it and all new development belongs to
anyone who chooses to work on it…. All ideas are accepted or rejected
based on the needs of the system….

Communication between nodes of a system is on an as needed basis.
Transparency allows information to travel freely between the various
nodes…. Information sharing is driven by the information, not personal
relationships. If data is relevant to several nodes it will be
immediately transmitted to all, no formal meetings between official
personalities are necessary.

…It is neither reasonable nor desirable for individual thought and
action to be subjugated to group consensus in matters which do not
affect the group, and it is frankly impossible to accomplish complex
tasks if every decision must be presented for approval; that is the
biggest weakness of the hierarchical model.

Benkler uses a hypothetical case to illustrate, in concrete terms, how
stigmergic coordination works:

Imagine that one person, or a small group of friends, wants a utility.
It could be a text editor, photo-retouching software, or an operating
system. The person or small group starts by developing a part of this
project, up to a point where the whole utility — if it is simple enough
— or some important part of it, is functional, though it might have much
room for improvement. At this point, the person makes the program freely
available to others, with its source code…. When others begin to use
it, they may find bugs, or related utilities that they want to add
(e.g., the photo-retouching software only increases size and sharpness,
and one of its users wants it to allow changing colors as well). The
person who has found the bug or is interested in how to add functions to
the software may or may not be the best person in the world to actually
write the software fix. Nevertheless, he reports the bug or the new need
in an Internet forum of users of the software. That person, or someone
else, then thinks that they have a way of tweaking the software to fix
the bug or add the new utility. They then do so, just as the first
person did, and release a new version of the software with the fix or
the added utility. The result is a collaboration between three people —
the first author, who wrote the initial software; the second person, who
identified a problem or shortcoming; and the third person, who fixed it.
This collaboration is not managed by anyone who organizes the three, but
is instead the outcome of them all reading the same Internet-based forum
and using the same software, which is released under an open, rather
than proprietary, license….

In a hierarchy, all communications between members or between local
nodes must pass through a limited number of central nodes. The only
communications allowed to pass from one member or local node to another
are those which meet the standards for distribution of those who control
the central nodes. Only a few nodes within a hierarchy have the
authority to transmit; hence the use of the phrase “one-to-many” to
describe its topology. The version of local news that appears in the
local newspaper under the byline of a local journalist may be far
superior in relevant detail and analysis, but it is the wire service
version — even if far inferior in quality — which appears in local
newspapers all around the world. It is only the communications approved
by the Party Secretariat that are heard by all local cells of a

But in a distributed network, every node has the power to transmit as
well as receive, and any two nodes can communicate directly with each
other without passing through a central node or obtaining the approval
of whoever controls that node.

A network is “plurarchical,” in de Ugarte’s terminology, rather than
democratic. Instead of the individual members simply selecting who
controls the central nodes, “[s]omeone makes a proposal and everyone who
wishes to join in can do so. The range of the action in question will
depend on the degree to which the proposal is accepted.” Democracy is a
“scarcity system” in which decision-making power is rivalrous: “the
collective must face an either/or choice, between one filter and
another, between one representative and another.” In a distributed
network, on the other hand, decision-making power is non-rivalrous. Each
individual’s decision affects only herself, and does not impede the
ability of others to do likewise. “Even if the majority not only
disagreed with a proposal, but also acted against it, it wouldn’t be
able to prevent the proposal from being carried out.”
“[I]n the blogosphere,” he writes elsewhere,

a space where the social cost of an extra post is zero, any blogger’s
publishing his or her information does not decrease anyone else’s
publication possibilities. The marginal cost is zero. The need to
collectively decide what is published and what is not simply disappears.
As opposed to scarcity logic, which generates the need for democratic
decision, abundant logic opens the door to pluriarchy.

In such a universe, every collective or hierarchical decision on what to
publish or not can only be conceived as an artificial generation of
scarcity, a decrease in diversity, and an impoverishment for

Pirate Party co-founder Rick Falkvinge also regards permissionlessness —
the ability to act without first getting everybody on the same page — as
a major advantage of stigmergic organization:

…if you have a large assembly of people who are forced to agree on
every movement, including the mechanism for what constitutes such
agreement, then you rarely achieve anything at all.

Therefore, as you build a swarm, it is imperative that everybody is
empowered to act in the swarm just through what they believe will
further its goals – but no one is allowed to empower themselves to
restrict others, neither on their own nor through superior numbers.

This concept – that people are allowed, encouraged and expected to
assume speaking and acting power for themselves in the swarm’s name, but
never the kind of power that limits others’ right to do the same thing –
is a hard thing to grasp for many….

As a result, somebody who believes the swarm should take a certain
action to further its goals need only start doing it. If others agree
that the action is beneficial, then they will join in on that course of

Traditional marketing says that a message needs to stay constant to
penetrate. My experience says that’s total hogwash….

If somebody comes up to you and tells you a factual statement in a
language that you identify as that of a group you dislike, you are very
likely to discard that message as false, despite its actual truthness.
In the same vein, if somebody that dresses, speaks, and acts in a manner
consistent with your social standards tells you a factual statement,
then you are likely to accept it as plausible and maybe examine it on
its own merits later….

The recipe is ridiculously simple: communicate your vision to everybody,
and let the thousands of activists translate your vision into words that
fit their specific social context. Don’t make a one-size-fits-all
message that everybody has to learn. It will be a

As Heylighen describes it, stigmergy “can be seen as a fundamental
mechanism of self-organization”:

it allows global, coordinated activity to emerge out of local,
independent actions. Like self-organization in general, stigmergy relies
on feedback: action elicits action, via the intermediate of the trace.
This feedback is typically positive, in that actions intensify and
elaborate the trace, thus eliciting more intense and diverse further
actions. The resulting virtuous cycle explains in part why stigmergic
organization is so surprisingly effective, enabling the construction of
complex structures — such as a termite hill, a network of trails, or a
global encyclopedia — in a very short time, even when starting from
scratch. When needed, feedback can also be negative: errors,
disturbances or “overshoots” that make the trace deviate from its ideal
shape will elicit actions that correct the deviation.

Agility. Stigmergic, networked organizations are far more agile than
hierarchical institutions because they require no permission or
administrative coordination to act. A traditional hierarchy, in which
decisions are mediated administratively or socially, incurs enormous
transaction costs getting everyone on the same page before anyone can

Paul Mason points out the irony involved in corporate capitalism — whose
apologists used to contrast its agility to the bureaucratic ossification
of a planned economy — now being lumped together with state socialist
bureaucracy in contrast to the agility of networks.

…[T]he stigmergic, horizontal forms of of organization facilitated by
networked communications have drastically reduced the transaction costs
of coordinating action outside of traditional institutional hierarchy.
They have made the central planning of the large corporation as obsolete
as the central planning of Gosplan.

Economists like to demonstrate the archaic nature of command planning
with mind-games like ‘imagine the Soviet Union tried to create
Starbucks’. Now, here’s a more intriguing game: imagine if Amazon,
Toyota or Boeing tried to create Wikipedia.

Agility is a force-multiplier. A small army that can move rapidly can
defeat a large, slow army in detail by successively concentrating local
superiority of force in a series of places in a short time. Because of
their agility, shortened reaction time, and speed with which they share
information and new techniques, networks are inside what strategist John
Boyd called the “OODA loop” of hierarchies. They react
more quickly than hierarchies to changing circumstances, staying a step
ahead and keeping them constantly off-balance. Networks can go through
many generational cycles of innovation while hierarchies are still
ponderously formulating a response to issues with first-generation
practices. The ability to process new information, and to make
generational changes in praxis more quickly in response to that
information more quickly, results in superior performance. Boyd called
it the Law of Iteration:

the primary determinant to winning dogfights was not observing,
orienting, planning, or acting better. The primary determinant to
winning dogfights was observing, orienting, planning, and acting faster.
In other words, how quickly one could iterate. Speed of iteration,
Boyd suggested, beats quality of iteration.

OODA loops tend to become shorter as the “distance” decreases or
“friction” is reduced (in informational terms) between the various
stages of the cycle. Anything (like approval processes within a
hierarchy) that increases buffering or delay between the different
sub-processes of the OODA loop, or impedes feedback, will slow down
information-processing and reaction. So a permissionless system in which
the observer is empowered to immediately act on information is ideal,
from an OODA standpoint.

In the case of networked or stigmergic organizations, only successful
iterations matter because their successes become the collective property
of the entire network. A single network is experiencing — in the sense
of benefiting from the experience of — thousands, millions or billions
of constant iterations. So it’s able to undergo generational innovations
with the speed of replicating yeast, because members are free to
innovate on a modular basis on their own initiative and their
contributions are immediately free to anyone in the network who wants to
adopt them.

Compare the network’s anti-fragility and its robust engagement with its
environment, to the hierarchical organization as exemplified by John
Kenneth Galbraith’s corporate technostructure in The New Industrial
. The technostructure survives only by suppressing randomness and
volatility in its surrounding environment and making it predictable — in
other words, it’s fragile.

When you are fragile, you depend on things following the exact planned
course, with as little deviation as possible — for deviations are more
harmful than helpful. This is why the fragile needs to be very
predictive in its approach, and, conversely, predictive systems cause
fragility. When you want deviations, and you don’t care about the
possible dispersion of outcomes that the future can bring, since most
will be helpful, you are antifragile.

What makes life simple is that the robust and antifragile don’t have to
have as accurate a comprehension of the world as the fragile — and they
do not need forecasting.

On the other hand what Taleb calls “optionality” — the freedom from not
being locked into a course of action by past investments or a burden of
overhead and debt — means “you don’t have much need for what is commonly
called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills…. For you don’t
have to be right that often.” Instead, you can gain from random trial
and error and incremental tinkering. In evolution, “nature simply keeps
what it likes…. ” The network benefits from the
long-shot contributions of any members, without any downside risk to the
network as a whole from individual failures.

Automation of Routine Tasks, Improvement of Tooth-to-Tail Ratio.
Digital technology also promotes coordination by automating the most
labor-intensive, routine tasks that once engaged most of the
rank-and-file members of organisations, and frees it up for other
things. Cory Doctorow, countering Evgeny Morozov’s facile critique of
networked activism, noted the practical effect of digital technology in
increasing the tooth-to-tail ratio of all kinds of organizations:

As a lifelong political activist, I remember the thousands of
person-hours we used to devote to putting up flyposters, stuffing
envelopes, and running telephone trees simply to mobilise people for a
protest, petition or public meeting…. I’m sure that if we’d been able
to get the word out to thousands of people with the click of a mouse, we
wouldn’t have hung up our placards and called it a day; that drudge work
absorbed the lion’s share of our time and our capacity to think up new
and exciting ways to make change.

Enabling Direct Appeals Outside Institutional Propaganda
Until the EZLN uprising in Chiapas began the
post-1994 cycle of networked, horizontalist resistance movements,
discussion of the potential of networked communication for radical
organizing was largely theoretical and limited primarily to academic
circles. Just two years before the uprising, in 1992, Harry Cleaver had
speculated on what the transformation of ARPANET into the Internet, the
rise of radical listservs, etc., might lead to.

The Mexican authorities responded to the uprising fully expecting the
same outcome as in previous such confrontations: quick, quiet
suppression, with news coverage limited to the inside pages of the
international news sections of a few major newspapers of

Instead, propagation of news surrounding the Jan. 1, 1994 EZLN uprising
in Chiapas and subsequent attempt at state repression was
unprecedentedly swift thanks to the introduction of networked
communications, and completely blind-sided the Mexican regime.

The first activist analysis of communicational dimension of the conflict
noted that the “most striking thing about the sequence of events set in
motion on January 1, 1994 has been the speed with which news of the
struggle circulated and the rapidity of the mobilization of support
which resulted.” Modern computer communications… made it possible for
the Zapatistas to get their message out despite governmental spin
control and censorship. Mailing lists and conferences also facilitated
discussions and debate among concerned observers that led to the
organization of protest and support activities in over forty countries
around the world. The Zapatista rebellion was weaving, the analysis
concluded, a global “electronic fabric of struggle….”

The power to provoke invitations to dialogue with supranational
capitalist institutions was not always there. Before social movements
demonstrated their ability to organize an embarrassing amount of public
pressure, they were ignored. To build such a level of pressure
opposition movements organized themselves internationally, or globally,
in ways that bypassed all the layers of mediation that previously
protected these institutions. In this way the movements were able to
confront the institutions at their own supranational level….

…[T]he elaborate pattern of connections and linkages within social
movements bring vast numbers of imaginative people into a collective
endeavor where their joint creativity challenges that of a Power often
organized in a more rigid and less-flexible manner. Against a Powerful
rule-making and enforcing institution, grassroots power pits a
rhizomatic constituent force, more capable of innovating and elaborating
new lines of flight in struggle.

In 2006, halfway to the present, Cleaver remarked on “how the rapid
dissemination of information by journalists and others, through a
variety of media, including the Internet, played a central role in the
mobilization of the solidarity and support for the Zapatistas that
helped them survive and continue to elaborate autonomous approaches to

We also know that not only the dissemination of information but also the
spread of discussion about tactics and strategy in those same networks
circulated the efforts at solidarity and the mobilization of support:
from demonstrations against the Mexican government around the world to
the arrival of international observers and material aid to the
rebellious communities. Moreover, we also know that those networks not
only facilitated the organization of the Continental and
Intercontinental Encounters against Neoliberalism and for Humanity in
the spring and summer of 1996 and the Second Intercontinental Encounter
in Spain in 1997 but led to the formation of Peoples’ Global Action and
the first Global Action Days against the World Trade Organization (WTO)
in Geneva in 1998. Those beginnings led, in turn, to the subsequent
Battle of Seattle and the emergence of Indymedia in 1999 and the many
demonstrations against the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the G8 that
followed in places such as Davos, Prague and Genoa, i.e., a global
movement contesting the capitalist neoliberal reorganization of the

The importance of these developments cannot be overestimated. Never
before in history have we seen anything like them. Never before has
there been such intense and interconnected opposition to capitalism.
Capitalism has always been resisted and opposed but never before have so
many moments of resistance and opposition been linked in the ways
achieved during the last ten years.

Note that the movements of 2011 and after, which dwarfed those he was
describing — and whose aftershocks still persist — were yet to come.

Modularity and Granularity. A modular architecture
means that a movement, system or network can expand incrementally, by
the horizontal proliferation of new nodes, rather than as all-or-nothing

…[W]hen a project of any size is broken up into little pieces, each of
which could be performed by an individual in a short amount of time, the
motivation necessary to get any given individual to contribute need only
be very small. This suggests that peer production will thrive where
projects have three characteristics. First, they must be modular. That
is, they must be divisible into components, or modules, each of which
can be produced independently of the production of the others. This
enables production to be incremental and asynchronous, pooling the
efforts of different people, with different capabilities, who are
available at different times. Second, the granularity of the modules is
important. Granularity refers to the sizes of the project’s modules, and
in order for a peer production process successfully to pool a relatively
large pool of contributors the modules should be predominately
fine-grained, or small in size. This allows the project to capture
contributions from large numbers of contributors whose motivation level
will not sustain anything more than quite small efforts towards the
project…. In addition, a project will likely be more efficient if it
can accommodate variously sized contributions. Heterogeneous granularity
will allow people with different levels of motivation to collaborate by
contributing smaller or larger grained contributions, consistent with
their level of motivation. Third, and finally, a successful peer
production enterprise must have low-cost integration, which includes
both quality control over the modules and a mechanism for integrating
the contributions into the finished product…. Automated integration
and iterative peer production of integration, for example the use of
free software to integrate peer production of some other information
good, are the primary mechanisms by which peer production projects
described in this paper have lowered the cost of integration to the
point where they can succeed and sustain themselves.

Horizontal organizations are one of many examples of the module-platform
architecture. Modular systems achieve economies by replicating and
recombining a limited number of standardized parts. Modular,
building-block structures are ubiquitous. Why? Because such a structure
“transforms a system’s ability to learn, evolve and adapt… Once a set
of building blocks… has been tweaked and refined and thoroughly
debugged through experience… then it can generally be adapted and
recombined to build a great many new concepts… Certainly that’s a much
more efficient way to create something new than starting all over from
scratch. And that fact, in turn, suggests a whole new mechanism for
adaptation in general. Instead of moving through that immense space of
possibilities step by step, so to speak, an adaptive system can
reshuffle its building blocks and take giant leaps.” A small number of
building blocks can be shuffled and recombined to make a huge number of
complex systems.

Modular systems also support emergent phenomena like collective
intelligence. If you start with a large number of modular individuals,
each capable of interacting with a few other individuals, and acting on
other individuals according to a simple grammar of a few rules, under
the right circumstances the system can undergo a rapid phase transition,
according to systems theorist Stuart Kauffman: “The growth of complexity
really does have something to do with far-from-equilibrium systems
building themselves up, cascading to higher and higher levels of
organization. Atoms, molecules, autocatalytic sets, et cetera.” And the
new higher level entities, in turn, can interact among themselves,
perhaps creating another autocatalytic phase transition to a higher

III. The Impotence of Enforcement, and Superiority of Circumvention to

We already saw that the means of production and coordination have
undergone a cost implosion, and that a rapidly expanding range of tools
is becoming affordable for direct production for use in the commons.
This means the cost of means of production, and their control by
capitalist owners, is no longer the main barrier to production outside
the control of capital. Rather, artificial property rights, artificial
scarcities, and legal barriers are the main avenues of capitalist
control. Fortunately, these artificial property rights and legal
barriers are increasingly becoming unenforceable.

Our discussion of the superior agility of stigmergic organization
applies, specifically and especially, to the arms race between
technologies of surveillance and control, and technologies of evasion
and circumvention, respectively. Because such organizations are more
agile than authoritarian hierarchies, they are able to get inside the
state’s OODA loop in developing technologies of circumvention faster
than the state can develop technologies of control.

Authoritarian hierarchies respond to attack by becoming more
authoritarian and hierarchical, while networks respond by becoming more
agile and resilient. As Ori Brafman and Rod Backstrom put it, “when
attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open
and decentralized.” Hierarchies, on the other hand,
combat leaks by clamping down on internal communications, erecting
barriers to the transmission of information between their members, and
becoming even more opaque to themselves than previously (and internal
knowledge problems and information hoarding are endemic to hierarchy to
begin with).

The learning capacity of networks is part of what Nassim Taleb calls
“antifragility.” An antifragile system is one that “regenerates itself
continuously by using, rather than suffering from, random events,
unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility. The antifragile gains
from prediction errors, in the long run.” Hierarchies,
on the other hand, don’t just improve through experience; they actually
learn the wrong things (e.g., look at the Maginot Line as a response
to the lessons of WWI; or how TSA’s reactions to attempted terror
attacks not only make the aviation system less efficient and more costly
in performing its transportation functions, but also less effective
against future attacks).

The resistance’s agility in technical development mean it is able to
develop mashups of existing technology faster than the corporate state
was able to develop the original technologies. It can develop means of
circumvention faster than the state can deal with them.

In the case of copyright law, “piracy” is effectively legal now. It’s
not as widespread as it might otherwise be precisely because, for the
last decade or so, Apple and other companies have dealt with de facto
competition from the threat of file-sharing by making media downloads
cheap and convenient enough that piracy isn’t worth the trouble. With
the recent return to price-gouging walled garden models — for instance
the ongoing replacement of services like Netflix with a proliferation of
company-specific streaming services — it’s quite likely that
file-sharing rates will increase again. Likewise, any technological
advance that increases the convenience of file-sharing will make
copyright evasion more attractive.

In the case of patents on physical goods, the micromanufacturing
revolution is making them much harder to enforce. One benefit of the
implosion of capital requirements for manufacturing is that the number
of producers increases and the average market size shrinks to the point
that they are operating below the regulatory state’s radar.
Traditionally, patent enforcement depended on the low transaction costs
resulting from a small number of large producers marketing a relatively
small number of goods through a small number of nationwide retailers.
Without the ability to enforce their claimed powers, government commands
are about as relevant as the edicts of the Emperor Norton. It’s far more
cost-effective to go directly after the state’s enforcement capabilities
than try to change the law.

In John Robb’s terminology, the state’s enforcement capability is its
Systempunkt — its weak point — in a systems disruption strategy. It’s
based on the term Schwerpunkt from the theory of Blitzkrieg warfare.
The Schwerpunkt was

the point of greatest emphasis…, where the enemy front lines may be
pierced by an explosive combination of multiple weapons systems (tanks,
artillery, airpower, and so forth). Once the line is pierced, armored
forces can drive deep into enemy territory to disrupt command, control,
and logistical systems. When these systems are disrupted, the top-heavy
military units they support collapse in confusion.

Just as important, the majority of the enemy’s combat forces can be
bypassed and rendered ineffective by systems disruption, without the
attrition cost of defeating them piecemeal.

And the Systempunkt

is the point in a system (either an infrastructure system or a
marketplace), usually identified by one of the many autonomous groups
operating in the field, that will collapse the target system if it is
destroyed. Within an infrastructure system, this collapse takes the form
of disrupted flows that result in financial loss or supply shortages.
Within a market, the result is a destabilization of the psychology of
the marketplace that will introduce severe inefficiencies and

According to Robb, traditional strategic bombing of the kind used in
WWII measured success by a metric based on the total percentage of an
infrastructure’s capacity which was destroyed. But by that standard —
destroying a majority of the actual miles of transmission lines or rails
within a network — success was extremely costly. Al Qaeda Iraq, in
contrast, achieves enormous force multipliers disabling entire networks
by destroying a few key nodes. A small attack on a single point of a
critical oil pipeline out of an entire network, at a cost of $2000, cost
the Iraqi government $500 million in lost oil revenue.
In addition, the $8/barrel “terror premium” it added to the price of oil
cost the global economy $640 million. An attack on Shell
Oil’s Forcados loading dock platform in Nigeria, which cost roughly
$2000 to execute, cost Shell $400,000 in lost oil exports and another
$50 million from the shutdown of an adjacent oil field.
In the case of an electrical power grid, attacks on two percent of the
high-load nodes can shut down 60% of an infrastructure’s capacity, and
attacks on one percent can shut down 40% of capacity. A
system can be put out of operation, as if its entire physical
infrastructure were destroyed, at the cost of destroying only a tiny
fraction of its actual physical assets.

Likewise, actually taking control of the state’s policy-making
apparatus, through conventional politics, is extremely costly. But by
attacking the state at its Systempunkt
enforcement — we can render it ineffective against
us at a tiny fraction of the cost. As Charles Johnson argues:

A law that cannot be enforced is as good as a a law that has been

If you put all your hope for social change in legal reform, and if you
put all your faith for legal reform in maneuvering within the political
system, then to be sure you will find yourself outmaneuvered at every
turn by those who have the deepest pockets and the best media access and
the tightest connections. There is no hope for turning this system
against them; because, after all, the system was made for them and the
system was made by them. Reformist political campaigns inevitably turn
out to suck a lot of time and money into the politics — with just about
none of the reform coming out on the other end. But if you put your
faith for social change in methods that ignore or ridicule their
parliamentary rules, and push forward through grassroots direct action —
if your hopes for social change don’t depend on reforming tyrannical
laws, and can just as easily be fulfilled by widespread success at
bypassing those laws and making them irrelevant to your life — then
there is every reason to hope that you will see more freedom and less
coercion in your own lifetime. There is every reason to expect that you
will see more freedom and less coercion tomorrow than you did today, no
matter what the law-books may say.

One of the benefits of stigmergic organization is that individual
problems are tackled by the self-selected individuals and groups best
suited to deal with them — and their solutions are then passed on, via
the network, to everyone who can benefit from them. Individual
innovations immediately become part of the common pool of intelligence,
universally available to all. To take Cory Doctorow’s example of

Raise your hand if you’re thinking something like, “But DRM doesn’t have
to be proof against smart attackers, only average individuals!…. ”
…. I don’t have to be a cracker to break your DRM. I only need to
know how to search Google, or Kazaa, or any of the other general-purpose
search tools for the cleartext that someone smarter than me has

It used to be that copy-prevention companies’ strategies went like this:
“We’ll make it easier to buy a copy of this data than to make an
unauthorized copy of it. That way, only the uber-nerds and the
cash-poor/time rich classes will bother to copy instead of buy.” But
every time a PC is connected to the Internet and its owner is taught to
use search tools like Google (or The Pirate Bay), a third option
appears: you can just download a copy from the Internet….

Bruce Schneier describes the stigmergic model as automation lowering the
marginal cost of sharing innovations.

Automation also allows class breaks to propagate quickly because less
expertise is required. The first attacker is the smart one; everyone
else can blindly follow his instructions. Take cable TV fraud as an
example. None of the cable TV companies would care much if someone built
a cable receiver in his basement and illicitly watched cable television.
Building that device requires time, skill, and some money. Few people
could do it. Even if someone built a few and sold them, it wouldn’t have
much impact.

But what if that person figured out a class break against cable
television? And what if the class break required someone to push some
buttons on a cable box in a certain sequence to get free cable TV? If
that person published those instructions on the Internet, it could
increase the number of nonpaying customers by millions and significantly
affect the company’s profitability.

This is yet another example of the benefits of reduced cost of
aggregating or replicating small contributions, and of modular design.
In Schneier’s words, expertise is “[e]ncapsulated and commoditized.”
“Take a class break [i.e. a hack], automate it, and propagate the break
for free, and you’ve got a recipe for a security

Open-source insurgency follows this model, with each individual
contribution quickly becoming available to all. Robb writes of the
pattern of guerrilla war in Iraq:

I call this pattern the bazaar. The bazaar solves the problem: how do
small, potentially antagonistic networks combine to conduct war? Lessons
from Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” provides a starting
point for further analysis. Here are the factors that apply (from the
perspective of the guerrillas):

  • Release early and often. Try new forms of attacks against different
    types of targets early and often. Don’t wait for a perfect plan.

  • Given a large enough pool of co-developers, any difficult problem will
    be seen as obvious by someone, and solved. Eventually some participant
    of the bazaar will find a way to disrupt a particularly difficult
    target. All you need to do is copy the process they used.

  • Your co-developers (beta-testers) are your most
    valuable resource. The other guerrilla networks in the bazaar are your
    most valuable allies. They will innovate on your plans, swarm on
    weaknesses you identify, and protect you by creating system

IV. Superior General Efficiency and Low Overhead

We already saw superior agility and faster OODA loops as one of the
efficiencies of stigmergic organization, in particular. It’s also one of
many efficiencies inhering, more broadly, in the new models of
production and coordination as a whole. The postcapitalist economy
enabled by new technologies is more efficient than its predecessor in a
wide range of closely related ways: it is more agile, lower in overhead,
and better at extracting maximum value from minimum inputs.

John Robb uses the engineering analysis template of “STEMI compression”
(Space, Time, Energy, Mass, Information) to summarize a number of them.

  • Space. Less volume/area used.

  • Time. Faster.

  • Energy. Less energy. Higher efficiency.

  • Mass. Less waste.

  • Information. Higher efficiency. Less management overhead.

In particular, Robb sees his Resilient Communities (substitute the
commons-based local economies we discuss in Chapter Seven and the
concept applies virtually the same) as an example of across-the-board
STEMI compression.

  • Space. Localization (or hyperlocalization) radically reduces the
    space needed to support any given unit of human activity. Turns
    useless space (residential, etc.) into productive space.

  • Time. Wasted time in global transport is washed away. JIT (just in
    time production) and place.

  • Energy. Wasted energy for global transport is eliminated. Energy
    production is tied to locality of use. More efficient use of solar

  • Mass. Less systemic wastage. Made to order vs. made for market.

  • Information. Radical simplification. Replaces hideously complex
    global management overhead with simple local management

It’s closely related to the concept of “productive recursion,” which
Nathan Cravens uses to refer to the order of magnitude reduction in
material inputs required to obtain a good when it is produced in the
social economy, without the artificial levels of overhead and waste
associated with the corporate‐state nexus. Savings in
productive recursion include (say) laboring to produce a design in a
fraction of the time it would take to earn the money to pay for a
proprietary design, or simply using an open source design; or reforging
scrap metal at a tenth the cost of using virgin metal.

You can get some idea of the general concept and its potential just from
comparing the prices of (for example) an MRI machine in the US vs.
France, as a result of the difference in overhead from waste and
embedded rents even between two bureaucratic monopoly capitalist
countries, when one is somewhat less bureaucratic than the other. But
Cravens sites a long series of examples from Neil Gershenfeld’s book
FAB, consisting mostly of the achievements of alternative technology
and hardware hacking groups in Indian villages.

Marcin Jakubowski of the Open Source Ecology group argues, as do Amory
and Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken of the Rocky Mountain Institute, that
the efficiencies of productive recursion are cumulative. Jakubowski
writes: “Cascading Factor 10 cost reduction occurs when the availability
of one product decreases the cost of the next product.”

In Natural Capitalism Hawken et al, similarly, contrast the cascading
efficiencies (“Tunneling Through the Cost Barrier”) of whole systems
design to the standard corporate design approach of considering each
component in isolation without regard for its role in a larger system,
or the even greater efficiencies upstream that may be achieved from an
initial efficiency downstream. Improving components in isolation, or
incrementally increasing efficiency, may well increase costs. But
large-scale efficiency improvements in entire designs can reduce costs
by orders of magnitude.

Much of the art of engineering for advanced resource efficiency involves
harnessing helpful interactions between specific measures so that, like
loaves and fishes, the savings keep multiplying. The basic way to do
this is to “think backward,” from downstream to upstream in a system.

They give the example of a pumping system, in which the cumulative
inefficiency losses are so great that the expenditure of a thousand
units of fossil fuel energy at a power plant, by the time the energy
powers the motor, the motor powers the pump, and the fluid works its way
through the pipe, results in only a hundred energy units of flow at the
end. On the other hand, if (instead of just leaving plant layout as it
is and haphazardly laying pipes around obstacles) we design the pipe
layout to minimize friction, we will require a significantly smaller
pump, which will require a smaller motor, which will require less
electricity from the plant. Reducing energy losses from friction in the
pipes by one unit will reduce energy generation needs at the plant by
ten units.

More insulation, or a more energy-efficient furnace or air conditioner
with the same capacity, will cost significantly more taken in isolation.
But if passive solar design is combined with insulation so as to reduce
the capacity of the furnace or air conditioner required by
three-fourths, the overall system will be significantly cheaper because
efficiency is increased systemically.

Likewise, most of a V8 engine’s horsepower remains idle except in very
brief periods of acceleration, like passing on a freeway. And all the
added weight of that heavy engine block requires a much heavier chassis;
the engine and chassis together require power steering, and so on. So
that if you redesign a transportation system to eliminate the need for
rapid acceleration on freeways, you can scale down the engine a great
deal, lighten the chassis even more, eliminate the power steering, etc.,
until the overall system is only a fraction of the former cost.

Now consider a society in which communities are compact and mixed-use,
designed around public transit to get most people from their homes to
work and shopping, and these compact communities are linked in turn by
light rail networks. In this society the automobile is a niche product
(i.e. for those in sparsely populated areas on the outskirts of town not
served by railheads, like truck farmers who need to make periodic trips
into town; or disabled persons not adequately served by public
transportation). There are no freeways. In this society, a vehicle
designed as a utility for this niche market might well have an electric
motor rather than having an internal combustion engine at all. Most of
the components could be built (if molded body panels were replaced by
flat ones) with tabletop machines in a neighborhood shop, and the
assembly could take place entirely in such shops, resulting in still
further savings in transportation.

Generally speaking, the counter-economy is more efficient in its use of
resources because it has developed, and continues to develop, under a
set of constraints and incentives fundamentally different from those
under which capitalism functions. Capitalism has always operated in an
environment of artificial abundance of material resources, and mostly
grown by extensive development (i.e., through the addition of new
resource inputs rather than more efficient use of existing ones) because
of its privileged access to enclosed land and resources and the state’s
socialization of the costs of many material inputs. The post-capitalist
economy we are building, on the other hand, operates without such
subsidies and privileged access to resources, so that it must extract
maximum value from available labor and resources, often making more
efficient use of the castoffs and waste byproducts of capitalism.

Conversely, while the capitalist economy makes information artificially
scarce, expensive, immobile and difficult to share, the post-capitalist
economy makes much more efficient use of information by facilitating
sharing and collaboration and eliminating barriers to the flow of ideas.

Distributed, Ephemeral Infrastructures. Infrastructure needs and the
resulting overhead can be reduced significantly just by adopting the
whole systems design approach described above, and designing production
processes according to lean principles.

Most costs come from five percent of point consumption needs, and the
need to scale the infrastructure to cover the extra peak loads that
occur only five percent of the time. Similarly, the tendency of mass
production industry to undertake production without regard to immediate
demand, thus getting production out of scale to demand, requires
additional infrastructure for intermediate storage of in-process outputs
for which there is no immediate need. Because mass
production industry optimizes the efficiency of individual points in the
production process (i.e., the unit costs of a particular machine) in
isolation, without regard to maintaining sync with the overall flow of
production, the production flow is filled with eddies of excess
inventory and backlogs that add to overhead costs.

Things like asking whether the needs involved in that five percent peak
demand surge are really necessary, whether the process can be designed
to eliminate them, whether the process can be redesigned on a lean basis
to scale machine output to overall production flow and to scale
production flow to immediate demand — all these things taken together
can reduce the need for infrastructure capacity by an order of
magnitude, along with overhead costs of maintaining it when it’s idle.

But beyond that, additional savings in overhead can be achieved by new
distributed technologies whose infrastructures are embedded primarily in
the endpoints. A distributed infrastructure, Vinay Gupta writes,

the same class of services that are provided by centralized systems like
the water and power grids, but without the massive centralized
investments in physical plant. For example, dry toilets and solar panels
can provide high quality services household by household without a

Distributed physical infrastructures benefit from modularity in a way
directly analogous to the benefit that immaterial production receives.
Blockbuster infrastructure projects become irretrievable “sunk costs” if
the situation changes so that they cannot be completed. But if “half a
dam is no dam at all, …500 of 1000 small projects is half way to the

Modular architectures have the related virtue of what Robb calls “scale
invariance”: the part is able, in case of system disruption, to
replicate the whole. In other words the system is fractal (“across all
scaling factors…, the properties that define the whole are
conserved….”). This means that a networked system of autonomous, largely
self-sufficient local industrial ecologies is extremely resilient to

…[S]ystem recovery could be catalyzed and the damage largely mitigated,
if our global system was scale invariant. Basically, this means that if
we had communities that could produce at the local level many of the
essential products and services currently produced at the global level,
handling disconnection or buffering turbulence would be of little
consequence (also, it would be much easier for us to find ways of
protecting or making redundant the products/services that ONLY could be
produced at the global level).

V. Conclusion

To summarize, the legacy system of bureaucratic capitalist corporations
and their state, educational, and non-profit counterparts is like a
Tyrannosaurus Rex dying in a swamp; the counter-economy we are
constructing within the interstices of capitalism, using liberatory
technologies, is like a swarm of piranha.

The practical implication of cheap production technologies suitable for
direct, small-scale production for use in the social economy is that we
can secede in place from capitalism with the means of production already
in our possession rather than seizing the factories. The practical
implication of network organization is that large hierarchical
institutions like centralized political parties are no longer needed for
coordinating the resistance to capitalism.

Postcapitalist transition strategy is no longer primarily about seizing
the “commanding heights” institutions of capitalism, but about building
a postcapitalist society and economy outside the control of capitalism.
Our organizations are focused, not on storming the ramparts of the old
system, but on building the new ones. When it is necessary to directly
confront the old system, we simply incapacitate it at minimum cost to

[Last Edited October 6, 2020]

Part Two. The Age of Exodus

Chapter Three: Horizontalism and Self-Activity Over Vanguard Institutions


New radical ideologies and forms of praxis have emerged, from the
mid-20th century on, that reject the major features of the Old Left.

Although I raise issues in a later chapter about the use of
“prefigurative” in cases where “interstitial” would in my opinion be
more appropriate, the organizational approaches described in this
chapter are prefigurative in the proper sense of the term. That is,
while “interstitial” is arguably preferable for describing an approach
to building the actual institutional structure of the successor
society within the shell of the existing one, “prefigurative” is
perfectly suited to horizontalist political movements insofar as they
inculcate the cultural values, habits, or personality styles around
which we envision the successor society being constituted.

Horizontalism, as an organizational style, is prefigurative as Carl
Boggs defines it: “ the embodiment, within the ongoing political
practice of a movement, of those forms of social relations,
decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate
goal.” And a horizontalist approach, in prefiguring the libertarian
society which is our goal, also hampers propagation of the current
institutional culture into post-capitalist society:

Bureaucratization creates obstacles to revolutionary change that were
only dimly foreseen by classical Marxism. The expansion of the public
sphere and the convergence of state and corporate sectors has meant more
centralized and total networks of power and, correspondingly, the
erosion of popular democratic initiative. Bureaucratic logic… helps to
enforce bourgeois ideological hegemony insofar as it diffuses a culture
of organisational adaptation, submission, pragmatism, routine; it
depoliticizes potential opposition by narrowing the range of political
discourse, by institutionalizing alienation, and posing only “technical”
solutions to problems.

More recently, Sofa Saio Gradin described prefigurative politics as “the
politics of organising in the here-and-now in a way that reflects the
society we want to see in the future,” and “about shaping our cultures,
norms and social relations, as well as our formal rules and policies, in
the image of the society we desire.”

The New Left appeared from the mid-50s on, in the West, as a response to
the bureaucracy and managerialism of the Old Left. In the United States
and UK in particular, it was catalyzed by reaction against the orthodox
Communist Parties, and against the politics of the Labour Party in the
UK and the New Deal and official labor movement in the U.S. In the UK it
coalesced around New Left Review and the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament in the late 50s, with Marxist historian E.P. Thompson as a
leading early figure. In the United States shortly thereafter, the
nucleus of the growing New Left movement included power-elite
sociologist C. Wright Mills (whose “Letter to the New Left” was actually
addressed to Thompson), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (whose Port Huron Statement
was a founding document of the New Left). It was fueled by the Free
Speech Movement at Berkeley and the anti-war movement from 1965 on. In
addition, New Left scholarship was developed by revisionist historians
of “corporate liberalism” like William Appleman Williams at Studies on
the Left

Although the New Left was a diverse movement with a number of
conflicting currents, it had some elements in common. Particular
relevant to our interests are the following:

  • A disillusion with bureaucratic institutions and with managerialist
    “End of Ideology” theories, and a preference for decentralization,
    participatory democracy and direct action.

  • This latter preference for participatory democracy and direct action
    took the particular form, among other things, of a tendency toward
    counter-institutions and prefigurative projects like intentional
    communities and experiments with alternative technology: e.g. Murray
    Bookchin, Whole Earth, Radical Technology, Paul Goodman, Colin Ward.

  • A shift away from the Old Left’s sole focus on the traditional
    industrial proletariat as agent of history, and toward inclusion of
    marginalized groups, student intellectuals, unwaged labor, etc.

Autonomist Marxism was heavily influenced by the New Left, and shared
many of its central values. Autonomism, in turn, later had a close
relationship with Zapatismo and the subsequent cycle of horizontalist

In the next few chapters we will examine in greater detail the different
aspects of these reactions to the Old Left, and how they constitute a
larger constellation of movements focused on Exodus.

I. The New Left

If there was one defining feature of the New Left, it was a rejection of
the bureaucratic and managerial style of the Old Left’s institutions,
whether the vanguard Party of Marxism-Leninism, or the political
parties, establishment unions and welfare state of Social Democracy and
the New Deal.

In Great Britain and the United States, the New Left was initially
catalyzed by disillusionment with the orthodox Communist Parties in
those countries — first by Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalinist
brutality, and then by the British and American Parties’ feeble response
to the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

At the same time, a new generation of socialists was growing
dissatisfied with the bureaucratic culture of Atlee’s welfare state and
its American New Deal counterpart, and the ascendancy of liberal “End of
Ideology” frameworks that limited hope for the future to tinkering
around the edges of a managerial apparatus that claimed to have mostly
relegated poverty and injustice to the imperfect past.

They increasingly saw adherents of this managerialist ideology in
liberal politics and government administration as direct counterparts of
the Organization Man in corporate bureaucracy, and more broadly as
comparable to the Soviet Party Apparat which framed the future
achievement of communist abundance and withering away of the state as an
incremental process of minor bureaucratic adjustments by the existing
authorities, within the existing institutional framework. By “ideology,”
Bell and his ilk meant structural critiques of any kind, any analysis
which went beyond the piecemeal and individual or failed to take the
basic institutional structures of post-industrial capitalism as natural
and inevitable, as given.

New Left analysis at this time saw the establishment liberalism —
“corporate liberalism” — as its primary enemy, even more so than the
reactionary Right. This establishment included the Military-Industrial
Complex and other oligopoly corporations, the imperialist foreign policy
establishment and its think tanks, the AFL-CIO, the moderate civil
rights leadership, and the welfare state bureaucracy (whose purpose was
to maintain social control of the surplus population).

In 1959 E. P. Thompson framed the New Left as the reaction of a
generation of leftists who came of age after WWII, against the
organizational styles of “American ‘Power Elite’, Russian ‘Bureaucracy’,
British ‘Establishment’…”

  1. The Establishment of Power. The increasing size, complexity, and
    expertise required in industrial concerns have contributed to the
    sense of ‘anonymity’ of the large-scale enterprise, to the power of
    the managers, and to the sense of insignificance of the individual

  2. The Establishment of Orthodoxy. Two factors have combined to
    generate a climate of intellectual conformity: first, the
    centralised control, either by great commercial interests or by the
    State itself, of the mass media of communication, propaganda, and
    entertainment, and the consequent elimination from them of minority
    opinions: second, the ideological orthodoxies and heresy-hunting
    which have been a by-product of the Cold War….

  3. The Establishment of Institutions. Here the post-war generation
    encounter institutions which had already become ‘set’ in their
    leadership, bureaucracy, procedures and policies, in the war or
    immediate post-war years…. The younger generation have no memories
    of Labour as a movement of storm and protest, a movement of men
    struggling and sacrificing to lift themselves and their fellows out
    of cramping and de-humanising conditions. They were born, rather,
    into the world of the block vote; it is the trade union that tells
    them what they can do and what they can’t do. They see restriction
    where their fathers saw mutual support….

And the reaction against these establishments, in turn, carried a new
organizational style distinct from that of the Old Left.

[T]he assertion of democracy in the Communist area cannot take place
without a hundred contests with the entrenched bureaucracy, its
institutions and ideology. And, equally, the regeneration of the Western
socialist movement cannot take place without a fundamental break with
the policies and orthodoxies of the past decade. And this two-pronged
offensive is (it becomes increasingly clear) carrying the left Socialist
in the West, and the dissident Communist in the East, towards a common
objective. There is a rediscovery of common aims and principles,
obscured during the violent era of the Third International. This does
not constitute a conversion of sections of the Western labour movement
to Communist orthodoxy, nor of disillusioned Communists to liberal
social-democracy. It represents, rather, a rejection of both
orthodoxies; and the emergence of a New Left which, while it draws much
from both traditions, stands apart from the sterile antagonisms of the
past, and speaks for what is immanent within both societies. It
champions a new internationalism, which is not that of the triumph of
one camp over the other, but the dissolution of the camps and the
triumph of the common people….

…If there is, as yet, no unified theory of the New Left, there are
many common pre-occupations…. Confronted by the authoritarianism and
anti-intellectualism of the Stalinist deviant of Marxism, Communist
dissidence has broken with its scholastic framework and is subjecting
the entire catechism to an empirical critique. But at the same time,
confronted by the idiocies of the Cold War and the facts of power within
Western ‘over-developed societies’, a taut radical temper is arising
among the post-war generation of socialists and intellectuals in the
West. In the exchange between the two a common language is being
discovered, and the same problems are being thrust forward for
examination: the problem of political power and of bureaucratic
degeneration: the problem of economic power and of workers’ control: the
problems of de-centralisation and of popular participation in social
control. There is the same rediscovery of the notion of a socialist
community; in Britain the Fabian prescription of a competitive Equality
of Opportunity is giving way, among socialists, before the re-discovery
of William Morris’s vision of a Society of Equals; in the Communist
world the false community of the authoritative collective is under
pressure from the voluntary, organic community of individuals, which,
despite all the inhumanities of the past two decades, has grown up
within it. There is, East and West, the same renewal of interest in the
‘young Marx’; the same concern with humanist propositions; the same
re-assertion of moral agency, and of individual responsibility within
the flow of historical events. The New Left has little confidence in the
infallibility, either of institutions or of historical processes. A true
socialist community will not be brought into being by legislative
manipulation and top-level economic planning alone. Socialism must
commence with existing people; it must be built by men and women in
voluntary association…. At every stage, before, during, and after the
conquest of power, the voluntary participation of the people must be
enlisted, and the centres of power must themselves, wherever possible,
be broken up. The New Left is made up of revolutionary socialists; but
the revolution to which they look forward must entail not only the
conquest but also the dismantling of State power.

Of the “end-of-ideology” mindset shared by the managerial stratum in the
West and its counterparts in the Soviet bloc, C. Wright Mills wrote:

So reasoning collapses into reasonableness. By the more naïve and
snobbish celebrants of complacency, arguments and facts of a displeasing
kind are simply ignored; by the more knowing, they are duly recognised,
but they are neither connected with one another not related to any
general view. Acknowledged in a scattered way, they are never put
together: to do so is to risk being called, curiously enough,

This refusal to relate isolate facts and fragmentary comment with the
changing institutions of society makes it impossible to understand the
structural realities which these facts might reveal; the longer-run
trends of which they might be tokens. In brief, fact and idea are
isolated, so the real questions are not even raised, analysis of the
meanings of fact not even begun….

Underneath this style of observation and comment there is the assumption
that in the West there are not more real issues or even problems of
great seriousness. The mixed economy plus the welfare state plus
prosperity — that is the formula. US capitalism will continue to be
workable, the welfare state will continue along the road to ever greater
justice. In the meantime, things everywhere are very complex, let us not
be careless, there are great risks….

All this is just the sort of thing that I at least have always objected
to, and do object to, in the “socialist realism” of the Soviet Union.

There too, criticism of milieux are of course permitted — but they are
not to be connected with criticism of the structure itself; one may not
question “the system.” There are no “antagonistic contradictions….”

…In Uzbekistan and Georgia as well as in Russia. I kept writing notes
to myself, at the end of recorded interviews: “This man talks in a style
just like Arthur Schlesinger Jr….”

So far as the historic agency of change is concerned, the
end-of-ideology stands upon the identification of such agencies with
going institutions; perhaps upon their piecemeal reform, but never upon
the search for agencies that might be used or that might themselves make
for a structural change of society.

The Port Huron Statement of 1962, founding document of SDS, called for
what principal author Hayden called “participatory democracy”:

a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims:
that the individual share in those social decisions determining the
quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to
encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common

The governing economic principle: “work should involve incentives
worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not
stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed, not manipulated,
encouraging independence, a respect for others, a sense of dignity, and
a willingness to accept social responsibility….” And “major social
institutions — cultural, educational, rehabilitative, and others —
should be generally organized with the well-being and dignity of man as
the essential measure of success.”

Hayden, writing in Dissent four years later, dismissed in much harsher
terms the liberal claim to have transcended the contradictions of
history through the application of proper expertise. The majority of
Americans were

at the bottom, or in the middle, of organizations whose official
purposes are justified in abstract terms. Their views, inherited from
their families or implanted by the school system, and fed every day by
the mass media, permit them to screen out threatening information or
alternative ways of seeing the world.

The usual way to “escape” the trapped condition of ordinary Americans is
to ascend to higher levels of influence and knowledge in some key
institution. But while an overview of society is gained from these
positions, a new trap is waiting. For entry into higher organizational
circles depends upon accepting their general design and purpose. This
means that people in “responsible” positions are most often blind to
immoral consequences of their work….

This national trance depends upon one crucial assumption: that American
society is being improved domestically. The legitimacy gained by the
industrial unions, the liberal welfare legislation which was passed in
the thirties and forties, and now the civil rights and anti-poverty
reforms of the sixties — these are seen as part of a long sweep toward a
society of economic and social justice…

…The tragedy, however, is not simply that these programs fall short of
their goals. Rather, the goals themselves are far from desirable to
anyone interested in greater democracy and a richer quality of social
life. Welfare and public housing policies, for instance, are creating a
new and public kind of authoritarianism. Public relief clients and
tenants, lacking any protective organizations, are subject to the
caprice and cruelty of supervisors, investigators, and local machine
politicians. Similarly, labor and civil rights legislation creates tools
for government intervention at moments of sharp social conflict, without
really changing the tyrannical conditions in which millions of workers
and Negroes live. The full employment and anti-poverty acts, along with
the relief measures of the thirties, give the government power to
cushion the economic situation just short of the point of mass
unemployment. Programs such as urban renewal serve as the major domestic
outlet for investment capital and, consciously or not, as a means of
demoralizing and politically fragmenting the poor. The national
government thus becomes the chief force for stabilizing the private
economy and for managing social crisis. Its interests, institutions and
personnel have merged with those of high finance and industry.

…[I]t appears that the American elite has discovered a long-term way
to stabilize or cushion the contradictions of our society. It does this
through numerous forms of state intervention, the use of our abundant
capacity for material gratification, and the ability to condition nearly
all the information which people receive…. Except for temporarily
boosting income for a few people, this entire reformist trend has
weakened the poor under the pretense of helping them and strengthened
elite rule under the slogan of curbing private enterprise. In fostering
a “responsible” Negro and labor leadership and bringing it into the
pseudopluralist system of bargaining and rewards, a way has been found
to contain and paralyze the disadvantaged and voiceless people….

…Slowly an elite is formed, calling itself the liberal-labor
community. It treats the rank-and-file as a mass to be molded; sometimes
thrust forward into action, sometimes held back….

The pressures which influence these leaders come, not primarily from
below, but from the top, from the most powerful men in the country.
Sometimes bluntly and sometimes subtly, the real elite grooms
responsible trade union and civil rights leaders. The leaders’ existence
comes to depend upon the possibility of receiving attention from the
President or some top aide, and they judge organizational issues with an
eye on this possibility. There is usually no question about the leaders’
primary loyalty to the “national interest” as defined by the
Administration, even though they always believe their judgments are
independently made. Thus most of the civil rights leadership in 1964,
fearing the Goldwater movement and hoping for civil rights legislation
from a victorious Johnson Administration, called for a “moratorium” on
mass demonstrations. The labor leadership performed the same function
for the same reasons during World War II….

To the Free Speech Movement, the university — as exemplified by Berkeley
in particular— “appeared to be the living example of the integration of
liberalism with actual policy,”

for its physical scientists do research on behalf of the military, and
the social scientists provide the government with vast amounts of
material designed to implement foreign and domestic policies.

The university has also achieved a fruitful integration with large
corporations throughout the nation. Its agricultural science departments
are tied closely to the large growers; university graduates are placed
in corporations; and the university provides basic research for every
level of corporate needs.

…It seemed to have defined its educational function as one of
producing for society’s needs as defined by government and the large

Various thinkers like Immanuel Wallerstein, and Antonio Negri and
Michael Hardt, have treated the New Left uprisings of 1968 as a
transitional phase to the fully horizontal movements of the 1990s (about
which more later in this chapter).

For some indication of the extent to which the New Left was a departure
from the institutional approaches of the Old Left, and prefigured the
post-1994 horizontalist movements, we need go no further than a debate
within Studies on the Left between two groups adopting positions
respectively framed by one of the parties to the debate as horizontalist
and centralist. In retrospect, their differences appear to be largely a
matter of emphasis; even the supposedly institutionalist side took what
we would consider a highly libertarian and decentralist

In “Up From Irrelevance,” the self-styled
advocates of horizontalism (Tom Hayden, Norm Fruchter and Stanley
Aronowitz) took specific issue with the editors’ call for

a “radical center” that could serve as a communications and coordinating
agency linking the new insurgents with the traditional left. While this
new center should be built around the insights and needs of the new
radicals, the editorial argued, it should make a basic place for the
older radicals who are now lodged in single-issue groups (traditional
civil rights, educational reform, peace activity) where their radicalism
is subdued and isolated from the new movements….

Proposing a “radical center” assumes there is a sufficiently large
radical movement in need of coordination; or, at least, it assumes that
a “radical center” could forge existing materials into such a movement.
But, as Studies also pointed out, the new movements are in
their infancy…. Assuming these movements must and will expand…, it
seems rather early to pull them into a national center. The critical
work still remains at the base, and only an overemphasis on the
image of a national movement can make one believe it exists. We ought
not to fall into the trap of confusing widespread outbursts [“sit-ins,
teach-ins, freedom votes, wildcat strikes”] with a solid movement.

Hayden et al noted that the left wing of the civil rights movement
(SNCC, Freedom Democratic Party, etc.) was still partially dependent on
the moderate civil rights establishment.

Certainly it is desirable to loosen this conservative grip. But for this
to take place, there must be something to break toward: other people
in the society who together can make up an alternative community to the
establishment. But such people are not available at the present time in
sufficient numbers and strength and, unless they are, it is hollow to
call for a “radical center.”

If this is true, it is irrelevant also to “choose” between the political
alternatives which usually are presented to radicals: working within the
Democratic Party for realignment versus independent political action.
The new movements which give us hope are realigning the
Democratic Party even though they often work outside the Party and their
values go far beyond those of the Democratic leadership. The new
movements are neither fully dependent nor independent; at present, they
are creating tensions in both directions.

In the case of the Freedom Democratic Party, the movement was forced to
rely to some extent on the establishment Democratic Party, and had
limited ability to push it towards realignment, because it lacked a
sufficiently numerous or mobilized base.

This means that, instead of assuming that a viable radicalism is
present, an assumption which leads to the idea that a “radical center”
is needed, we instead ought to focus on the obstacles to a radical
movement in the first place…. Almost everyone develops a vested
interest of some kind in the American system as a whole, and within the
system there are virtually no legitimate places from which to launch a
total opposition movement. Politically, any group looking for a radical
alternative to liberal-left politics seems to be either isolated and
destroyed, or swallowed into an uncomfortable coalition with the
leadership of labor, civil rights and religious organizations.

…What we seek to make viable, against the grain of an affluent and
coercive society, is a thoroughly democratic revolution, in which the
most oppressed aspire to govern and decide, begin to practice their
aspiration, and finally carry it to fulfillment by transforming
decision-making everywhere…. Power in America is abdicated by
individuals to top-down organizational units, and it is in the recovery
of this power that the movement becomes distinct from the rest of the
country, and a new kind of man emerges….

What we should try to do… is assume that we have failed so far to
discover the relationships and the forms that will free individuals to
think and work as radicals, and build a movement where “everybody is a
leader.” Not until then will a “center” reflect anything radical and
deep in society.

…My own feeling is that too many traditional leftists are still
engulfed by the Communist-anti-Communist debate [or] adhere to overly
bureaucratic conceptions of organizing… to be considered mainstays of
a new movement. The many people who are exceptions to this general
picture should concentrate on organizing the millions of people who
never experienced the history of the American left, instead of
attempting to reconstruct their old-left colleagues.

In reply, the defenders of the previous issue’s editorial (James
Weinstein, Stanley Aronowitz, Lee Baxandall, Eugene Genovese and Helen
Kramer) clarified that by “center” they meant something completely
different from the reading of Hayden et al.

When we spoke of the need for a new radical center we did not have in
mind an organizational short circuit of the new experiments with
community organization. Our use of the term was ideological, not
organizational; what we sought was discussion, analysis, examination of
all these social movements with a view to finding common programs, a
common attitude toward existing American social organization, a common
vision of a new society, and a long-range strategy for putting together
a coalition that might have some political relevance.

Beyond that, they argued, their respective positions were more similar
than Hayden et al made them out to be.

Our proposal was not to solve the problem with new “organizational
formulas,” but to begin the search for effective strategies to challenge
and change this society. Our goals are the same as Hayden’s. We agree on
the need to build a movement that is fully conscious of the need to
transcend the values and priority systems of America’s present rulers.
We disagree on the need for radicals to discuss and work out the
necessary theories and strategy of social change.

Underlying this disagreement is a difference over the nature of
potential radical constituencies, and a confusion between the problem of
organizing the poor and that of working toward a coalition of radical
constituencies capable of becoming an effective political force on the
left. Hayden’s concern is with the former; ours is with the latter. We
focus on different problems, but there is nothing inherently
contradictory or mutually exclusive in our two approaches…. [Hayden
believes that] the poor, both in the rural South and the Northern
ghettoes, are the only potentially radical mass constituencies…

…Assuming that the poor can be fully organized and will become fully
conscious of the need for radical politics, by themselves they must
remain impotent. There are not enough of them, nor do they command
sufficient resources to constitute a political force that can win
power…. [Hayden] presents no prospective for organizing a mass radical
student movement, and explicitly denies or ignores the existence of
other possible components of a radical coalition. Yet if a significant
movement is to be built it must be around a coalition large enough, at
least in theory, to contest for political power…. Programs of action
should be developed to facilitate connections between the various
components — including the poor — when they become sufficiently
conscious to engage in explicitly political action. Such a coalition
needs a common view of the existing society, common programmatic demands
(or at least complementary ones), a common vision of a new form of
social organization designed to satisfy human needs. We feel it is
necessary to begin the theoretical work on which such a movement can be

And in the previous issue’s editorial, the editors were actually in
substantive agreement with Hayden for the most part on the proper
approach towards Old Left radicals: that is, they saw their “new radical
center” as a way of reorienting directionless Old Leftists around the
New Left paradigm.

Likewise, they agreed with Hayden on the organizational style that
distinguished the New from the Old Left.

Those who, consciously or not, adopt a “Leninist” concept of political
organization offer structural or administrative solutions for political
and ideological problems. Such an approach… can only inhibit the
search for new political forms, can only stifle the kind of initiative
and experimentation in the development of radical consciousness and
program which is the strength of SNCC in Mississippi and some of the
ghetto projects in the North. We do not propose “democratic centralism”
or highly disciplined structures when we assert the need for a radical
center. In this sense, the experience of radical organizations in the
United States since the early 1920s is useless. Organizationally one
must go back to the old Socialist Party of Debs to find any meaningful
precedents…. Local Socialist organizations then had their own press,
developed their own programs, adopted different tactics.

II. Autonomism

From the beginning autonomism was about the self-activity of the working
class itself, independently of official institutions like parties and

Harry Cleaver’s development in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a Marxist — and
particularly as an autonomist — was in large part a reaction against the
“one-sided” nature of dominant Marxists analyses: “the one-sidedness of
most of these Marxist traditions with their focus on the mechanisms of
capitalist exploitation and their inability to theorize working class

Precisely because of this focus, the interpretations failed to grasp the
initiative of those resisting and attacking capital and, by so failing,
they could not even accurately understand the actions of capital itself
— which always developed in an interplay with that resistance and those

A major influence on the development of autonomism was the
Johnson-Forest tendency, which was an offshoot of (Schachtmanite)
American Trotskyism; it held that vanguard parties were
obsolete because the working class had internalized the ideology, and
instead focused on the working class’s own self-action outside of
official socialist parties and unions (e.g. wildcat strikes and direct

Raya Dunayevskaya — the “Forest” of the Johnson-Forest tendency —
objected to the dominant tendency to focus on the objective laws of
capitalist development at the expense of working class agency, and
emphasized the importance of “the strife between the worker and the
machine against dead labour’s domination over living

Cleaver was heavily influenced by the other half of the Forest-Johnson
tendency: C.L.R. James. James’s book Facing Reality “was distinguished
by the premise… that the socialist society already existed within the
shell of the old society. The task of revolutionaries was to recognize,
record, and enhance its existence.” In developing an analysis focused on
worker self-activity, he was also heavily influenced by the “bottom-up”
histories of E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, the autonomism of
Negri, the libertarian Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekkoek,
and the anarchism of Pyotr Kropotkin and Emma Goldman.

Italian autonomism was a New Left movement centered on the struggles of
factory workers who took direct action “autonomously from, and often
against, the influence of either trade unions or the
Party.” Similar direct action was meanwhile occurring in
the U.S. as the New Deal labor accord broke down and auto industry
workers engaged in wildcat strikes in direct violation of labor
contracts and direct defiance of their own union leadership.

By “reading Capital politically,” Cleaver means reading it from the
perspective of the working class as revolutionary subject. “This I would
argue is the only kind of reading of Marx which can properly be said to
be from a working-class perspective because it is the only one which
speaks directly to that class’s needs for clarifying the scope and
structure of its own power and strategy.”

Autonomism emphasizes a strand of Marx’s own thought that has been
largely neglected in establishment “Marxism” (the mechanistic official
Marxism of the Second International, systematized by Engels, Kautsky and
Plekhanov; which in turn became the primary raw material for the
official Marxist-Leninist “diamat” of the Comintern in the 20th century,
developed largely after Lenin’s death by Stalin).

The one feature that united most Marxist political economy in the Second
International and from WWI on, which transcended divisions between
social democrats and revolutionaries, was that “their restriction of the
scope of Capital and of the derived theories of crisis and imperialism
to the realm of political economy both limited the comprehensiveness of
their analysis, leaving major aspects of the system uncriticized, and
made it one-sided: they analysed capitalist growth and accumulation
independently of working-class initiative.”

The Old Left treated workers as passive in the face of a history
dictated by capital’s laws of motion.

We are presented with elaborately detailed critical interpretations of
this self-activating monster in a way that completely ignores the way
actual working-class power forces and checks capitalist development.
Marx saw how the successful struggle for a shorter working day caused a
crisis for capital. These political economists do not: they see absolute
surplus value as a reified abstract concept. Marx saw how that struggle
forced the development of productivity-raising innovations which raised
the organic composition of capital. He thus saw relative surplus value
as a strategic capitalist response. These political economists do not:
they see only competition between capitalists. Marx saw how workers’
wage struggles could help precipitate capitalist crises. These political
economists see only abstract ‘laws of motion’.

This “Mode of production” analysis treated the working class as a
passive chess-piece moved by the forces of history.

So in summary the Old Left shared a common tendency of leaving politics
(and specifically working class politics) out of their reading of

One basic criticism of reading Capital as political economy was that
it accepted the tradition of making a sharp dichotomy between economics
and politics and confined Capital to the former sphere…. Whether in
the case of the revived Marxist tradition of crisis theory or in the
case of neo-Marxist Keynesianism, the analysis focuses predominantly on
the development of capital itself — defined autonomously from the class
struggle. Political economy, in short, has concerned the theorization of
the capitalist factory as the site of the production of surplus value
together with the circulation and realization of value. Within the
factory capitalist domination is seen to be virtually complete. Although
workers might legitimately struggle to keep wages from being depressed
in periods of crisis, such ‘economistic’ struggles are ultimately
confined within the dynamic of capitalist growth and cannot pose any
real threat to its existence. The inevitable conclusion of this kind of
analysis is to place all hope for effective struggle in the ‘political’
sphere, which usually implies support for some form of party
organization. In such a situation the discussion of the rise and
organization of class struggle generally turns around the question of
‘class consciousness’…. With respect to this issue, as we have seen,
Marxist orthodoxy has been associated with the answer given by the Lenin
of What Is to Be Done?: namely that the workers would be educated by a
specialized party of professional revolutionaries who alone can see
beyond the particular economistic interests of each group of workers to
the interests of the class as a whole.

Social Democratic economism and Stalinist diamat, each in its own way,
minimized the subjectivity and agency of ordinary people relative to
either the material forces of history or vanguard institutions.

Autonomism was a reaction against this tendency. In 1964, Italian
autonomist Mario Tronti wrote:

Capitalist society has its laws of development: economists have invented
them, governments have imposed them, and workers have suffered them. But
who will uncover the laws of development of the working class? Capital
has its history, and its historians write it — but who is going to write
the history of the working class?…

We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development
first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn
the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the
beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class.
At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development
becomes subordinated to working class struggles; it follows behind them,
and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own
reproduction must be tuned….

Today the strategic viewpoint of the working class is so clear that we
wonder whether it is only now coming to the full richness of its
maturity. It has discovered (or rediscovered) the true secret, which
will be the death sentence on its class enemy: the political ability to
force capital into reformism, and then to blatantly make use of that
reformism for the working class revolution….

In undertaking a political analysis, Cleaver starts from the
perspective of the working class itself — “the struggles of the workers
themselves, not of their ‘official’ organizations (trade unions,
parties, etc.)” — and “the self-activity of the class that makes it more
than a victimized cog in the machinery of capital and more than a
fragmented mass requiring instruction in its class

And according to Cleaver “the pattern of development of capitalist
society (including its crisis) is the outcome of the confrontation of
two active class subjects, and involves the growth of the working class
along with the expansion of capital.”

From this perspective, revolution appears when working class struggles
throw capital into a crisis to which it is unable to fashion a
solution…. The rupture of capitalist control spreads and grows,
overthrowing more and more of the social relations that capital created
to reinforce its imposition of work. We understand by the capitalist
“integument is burst asunder” the ripping apart by the working class of
the entire capitalist social system shaped around imposed labor. The
expropriation of the capitalist is not simply the expropriation of their
“property” in any usual sense, it is rather the reappropriation of the
whole social order. Moreover, it is clear enough in Marx that
expropriation here means the freeing of that social order from
capitalist organization such that a wholly new society can be
constructed. Thus it means the end of the commodity form, of the
fetishism of production, the hierarchy of work, the alienation of labor,
and so on.

Although Marx and Engels rarely indulged in utopian speculation about
post-capitalist society, their observations of the pattern and content
of working class struggle led them again and again to emphasize how the
revolutionary destruction of capital would involve, in a fundamental
way, the liberation of people from a life sentence of hard labor.
Already in 1844 Engels saw in his Critique of Political Economy how
the development of productivity during the capitalist period would
create the possibility of reducing “to a minimum the labor falling to
the share of mankind.”

This early insight received extensive theoretical elaboration by Marx in
the Grundrisse. He clearly perceived how the rise in the organic
composition of capital and in the associated productivity of labor
reduced the need for work, making its imposition more and more
difficult. This creates a problem only for capital. For the working
class, on the other hand, it is a continual expansion of its potential
ability to reduce necessary labor to a minimum. Revolution must be
precisely the creation of a new historical situation in which, as Marx
said, “disposable time will grow for all…. The measure of wealth is
then not any longer, in any way, labor-time, but rather disposable
time.” Of the content of this time, Marx spoke only of the “free
development of individualities,” of the expansion of the
multidimensional self-defined needs and activities of the working class.
Ultimately this is what defines the working class as a revolutionary
subject, not only the negative power to abolish capital but the positive
power to increasingly define its own needs, to carve out an expanding
sphere of its own movement and to create a new world in the place of

In a footnote to a more recent reprint of the article quoted above,
Cleaver adds:

In the time since this essay was written two things have become clearer.
First, that revolution involves the working class going beyond its
status as “working” class to become a multiplicity for which the
activities that we now regroup under the rubric of “work” become but
moments in a broader process of self-realization. Second, that what the
people who make up that multiplicity create in the place of capital is
not “a new world” but, as the Zapatistas have pointed out, many new
worlds whose interaction form the stuff of post-capitalist

Nick Dyer-Witheford, another autonomist, criticized the Old Left in
similar terms. Their failing is a tendency towards technological
determinism which reduces the agency of the working class — its central
role in its own self-liberation — to almost nothing. Rather an almost
inevitable transition is driven by the forces of production or social
relations of production.

He criticized, similarly, the excessive technological determinism of
theorists of work-discipline like Braverman and Marglin, and David
Noble’s work on deskilling through automated CNC machine
tools. According to such analyses the ruling class, by
definition, always selects among the variety of technological
alternatives for one that best serves its interest; it follows that the
ruling classes’ need for control is built into whatever technology is in
use and therefore is exploitative by its very nature.

This approach is useful, Dyer-Witheford admits, because it sees through
the liberal capitalist techno-utopian project’s treatment of technology
as class-neutral and positive-sum, and points to the very real class
agenda embodied in that project. But its shortcomings
are far more significant. It makes the mistake of equating “capitalism’s
intentions and its capacities,” and “ignores the consequences of
[workers’] counter-strategies and resistances.” In particular, it
neglects “the possibility — particularly apparent in the field of media
and communications technologies — that capital’s laboring subjects may
find real use-values, perhaps even subversive ones, for the new

Autonomism, in contrast, stresses the working class’s role as creative
subject of revolutionary struggle, actively laying the basis for a new

Far from being a passive object of capitalist designs, the worker is in
fact the active subject of production, the wellspring of the skills,
innovation, and cooperation on which capital depends. Capital attempts
to incorporate labor as a object, a component in its cycle of value
extraction, so much labor power. But this inclusion is always partial,
never fully achieved. Laboring subjects resist capital’s reduction.
Labor is for capital always a problematic “other” that must constantly
be controlled and subdued, and that, as persistently, circumvents or
challenges this command.

Workers, autonomists argue, “are not just passive victims of
technological change but active agents who persistently contest
capital’s attempts at control.” One of the most important forms this
contestation takes is workers use of “their ‘invention power’ — the
creative capacity on which capital depends for its incessant innovation
— in order to reappropriate technology.”

In both his rejection of workerism and his celebration of working class
self-activity, Dyer-Witheford’s analysis is rooted in Negri’s
Grundrisse-based approach to Marx, a treatment of class antagonism
framed around the working class as revolutionary subject and
constitutive element of communist society, and its historic role of
abolishing “work” as a conceptual category as it now exists.

The mainstream, mechanistic line of Marxist analysis by the Old Left saw
Capital as the crowning achievement of Marx’s theoretical system, and
after the discovery and publication of the Grundrisse tended to treat
the former as having distilled everything of importance in the latter.
Negri, on the other hand, sees Capital as only a partial completion of
the larger project outlined in the Grundrisse. Marx
himself, in a letter to Engels in February 1858, outlined a six-volume
project entitled Critique of Political Economy:

  • Capital

  • Landed Property

  • Wage Labour

  • The State

  • International Trade

  • World Market

The chapter on labor in Volume One of Capital did not at all cover the
ground envisioned by Marx in the projected book on wage labor; he dealt
with it only in part, in “reduced and objective terms” in that chapter,
whereas the analysis in the Grundrisse that was never incorporated
into a separate volume on labor, was intended to link “Marx’s critique
of the wage and his revolutionary definition of communism and communist

4) The open-ended dynamism of Marx’s “system” is directed wholly towards
identifying the relationship between crisis and the emergence of
revolutionary subjectivity…. In this regard, the Grundrisse
is perhaps the most important—maybe the only—Marxian text on the
question of transition, and it is curious to note that among the
thousand and one positions published on the question of transition, this
fact goes completely unregarded.

Translated into plain language, analysis of the working class in terms
of “revolutionary subjectivity” and its role in the transition means
looking at the actual working class as it exists right now, how it
exercises agency through its actual practices, forms of organization and
activity, and how those practices and organizational forms prefigure (or
form the nucleus of) the future communist society it will create.

More recently, in language much like Cleaver’s, John Holloway challenged
the vulgar Marxist focus on capitalism as a closed “system” or
“structure,” framing it instead as a contested process in which he chose
to emphasize the “doing” of the working class in resisting the ongoing
imposition of commodification and abstract labor, and creating
prefigurative cracks in the system where the law of value does not
apply. Starting from the “party-centered thinking that had dominated
Marxist discussion” before the 1994 EZLN uprising, he wrote:

If capitalism is understood as a closed system governed by the “laws of
capitalist development,” then class struggle will be focused on building
the organisation that can break this system with its laws and logic, and
this organisation is generally understood to be the Party. However, if
the nouns are changed into verbs…, then all this changes….

The first thing that changes is the direction of struggle. Instead of
thinking of struggle as being our struggle against an established system
of domination, we come to understand that this “established system” is a
constant and desperate struggle to impose itself as a coherent logical
system and reproduce itself as such. Money is not a thing, nor is it a
stable form of social relations, it is a constant struggle to form
people’s behaviour in a certain way, a struggle that involves the
employment of millions and millions of police, supported by
psychologists, teachers, parents, and so on, and that quite literally
leads to the death of thousands and thousands of people each day from
violence, starvation, and untreated curable diseases. Capitalism is an
attack, an unceasing aggression against us, forcing us out of bed and
off to work each morning, pushing us to work faster in the factory or
the office or the university, coercing students and teachers to direct
their concerns to that which will increase the profitability of capital,
driving peasants off the land, destroying communities. It is an attack
that constantly provokes resistance-and-rebellion and is never sure of
its outcome….

The logic of capital is not separate from struggle: it is
struggle. Marx gives a succinct summary of the laws of capitalist
development: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the
Prophets!…” But accumulation is constant struggle; there is nothing
automatic about it….

…The struggle against capital is the refusal to accept the
reproduction of its logic; it is… the cracking of its totalising.
These refusals… have not yet broken the constantly renewed drive of
the logic of capital, but they do suggest a very different concept of
revolutionary politics. The possibility of revolution is not a question
of building the organisation that will one day take state power and
break capital: rather it is the recognition, creation, expansion,
multiplication, and confluence of all these breakings of the logic of
capital, all these creatings of different ways of doing

Capitalism is indeed a “system” that follows laws and is subject to
crisis tendencies, but those crisis tendencies are not an impersonal
force we have to wait on to work its dialectical magic while we look
forward to the Revolution that will occur when the augurs of historical
materialism tell us conditions are ready.

Crisis is the expression of capital’s incapacity to exploit us
sufficiently to secure its own profitability, of its inability to submit
us to its logic, to shape our daily activity in a way that guarantees
its constant expansion: in that sense we are the crisis of capital,
and capital’s struggle is the struggle to subordinate us more

Primitive accumulation is not simply a past event that occurred at the
establishment of capitalism; but an ongoing process that continues to be
written in letters of fire and blood. Indeed the “establishment of
capitalism” itself is an ongoing process, whose success is by no means

…[T]he reproduction of capital cannot be conceived of in any static
sense as the automatic renewal of pre-given forms of social relations…
[T]here is constant resistance to the reproduction of capitalist
domination and this resistance itself impels the constant reformulation
of the relations of domination…. Inevitably, this reformulation is
always a struggle to impose or reimpose certain forms of social
relations, to contain social activity within or channel social activity
into those (developing) forms.

III. The 1968 Movements and the Transition to Horizontalist Praxis

David Graeber argues that the 1968 movements were “the first move in the
opposite direction” from the Bolshevik Revolution. While the latter was
in the Jacobin tradition of revolutionizing society from above, the
“world revolution of 1968… was more anarchist in spirit”: It was
characterized by “the revolt against bureaucratic conformity, the
rejection of party politics, the dedication to the creation of a new,
liberatory culture that would allow for genuine individual

Immanuel Wallerstein, going further, saw 1968 as the key event of the
20th century, the beginning of the fracturing of the capitalist world
system: “…it was the most important historical event of the twentieth
century. It dwarfs the Russian Revolution. It dwarfs
1989.” As his interviewer, Gregory Williams, added,
contrary to the mainstream perception that 1968 was a flash in the pan
with no lasting effect, it never died out. 1989, the Seattle movements
and 2011 movements were all aftershocks.

Wallerstein distinguished the movements of the 1968 uprisings from those
of the Old Left. The latter, as he described it, was composed of
movements that “emerged as bureaucratic structures” like political
parties and labor unions, and believed that “the immediate source of
real power was located in the state apparatus and that any attempt to
ignore its political centrality was doomed to failure, since the state
would successfully suppress any thrust towards anarchism or cultural

The New Left, a loose collection of tendencies that encompassed most of
the 1968 movements, amounted to a considerable break from that model. To
the extent that the Old Left had triumphed either in Social Democratic,
Marxist-Leninist, or radical post-colonial regimes, the successes had
been limited by the countries’ ongoing role in the global division of
labor within the capitalist world system.

The conclusion that the world’s populations drew from the performance of
the classical antisystemic movements in power was negative. They ceased
to believe that these parties would bring about a glorious future or a
more egalitarian world and no longer gave them their legitimation; and
having lost confidence in the movements, they also withdrew their faith
in the state as a mechanism of transformation. This did not mean that
large sections of the population would no longer vote for such parties
in elections; but it had become a defensive vote, for lesser evils, not
an affirmation of ideology or expectations.

There have been some lasting features of the post-1968 movements, in
contrast to the Old Left. Most notably, according to Wallerstein, they
have rejected the primacy or hegemony of the conventional “proletariat”
in the socialist movements of the imperial core, and of the majority
national identity in national liberation struggles. And they have
rejected the demands of those in control of the institutional machinery
of such movements that all other issues be rejected as secondary, and
postponed until “after the revolution.” In 1968 the concept of the
“leading role” of the industrial proletariat “was being challenged on
the grounds that the industrial proletariat was and would always
structurally remain just one component among others of the world’s
working class.” The Old Left treated womens’ liberation struggles,
racial justice movements, etc., as “at best secondary and at worst

The “old left” groups tended to argue that their own achievement of
state power had to be the prime objective and the prior achievement,
after which (they argued) the secondary oppressions would disappear of
themselves or at least they could be resolved by appropriate political
action in the “post-revolutionary” era.

Despite these official dogmas it had become clear that the stereotypical
“proletarian” of vulgar Marxism was no more representative of the
laboring strata in the mid-20th century than in the mid-19th, and would
probably never be. The national identities lionized by national
liberation movements were likewise largely mythical, constructed at the
expense of national minorities and other oppressed groups. And in
countries where parties of the Left had come to power, it was
clear that oppression along racial, gender and other axes had been
addressed “after the revolution” hardly better than before. 1968
reflected the realization of these facts.

After 1968, none of the “other” groups in struggle — neither women nor
racial “minorities” nor sexual “minorities” nor the handicapped nor the
“ecologists” (those who refused the acceptance, unquestioningly, of the
imperatives of increased global production) — would ever again accept
the legitimacy of “waiting” upon some other revolution.

Wallerstein observed that the rise of post-1968 politics had reopened
debate “on the fundamental strategy of social transformation,” and that
it would be “the key political debate of the coming twenty years.” But
given that he wrote in 1989, before both the fall of communism in the
Soviet camp and the beginning of the EZLN insurgency in Chiapas, his
remarks were entirely tentative and inconclusive.

He did note, among the list of unanswered questions, the following:

  1. Is it possible to achieve significant political change without taking
    state power?

  2. Are there forms of social power worth conquering other than
    “political” power?

  3. Should antisystemic movements take the form of organizations?

  4. Is there any political basis on which antisystemic movements, West
    and East, North (both West & East) and South, can in reality join

These questions, written from the standpoint of 1989, carry considerable
irony for those of us today who read them in light of the answers since
given by the Zapatistas, the Seattle movement, the Arab Spring, M15 and
Syntagma, Occupy, and all the offshoots like Black Matters that persist
to the present day. The entire period since 1994 has been an extended
series of answers to the questions Wallerstein asked in 1989.

Writing over twenty years later, Wallerstein himself was able to
characterize the post-1968 period much more definitively with those
events in retrospect. In addition to the fluid and somewhat unpromising
mix of new movements that existed in the late 1980s — Radical Maoist
movements inspired by the Cultural Revolution that fizzled out in the
70s; issue-oriented movements like the Greens and racial and gender
justice groups; and human rights and civil society organizations — had
arisen, far more importantly, the anti-globalization movements of the

IV. The Post-1994 Movements

Negri and Hardt see the post-1968 wave of movements supplanting the Old
Left as analogous to the social factory supplanting Fordist production.
A focus on self-activity and subjectivity means that the multitude,
which grew out of the post-Fordist model of organizing production,
carries that model over into the conduct of political struggle; and this
model of conducting political struggle, in turn, prefigures the
organization of post-capitalist society. Although for them this was to
some extent a qualitative feature of the Left for the entire post-1968
period, it has been especially true of the post-1994 movements with
their increased reliance on network communications. The post-Fordist
evolution of praxis reached its full development in the “horizontalism”
of the post-1994 networked movements.

Organizations for networked struggle overlap to a large extent with the
organization of post-Fordist production, which permeates society at
large. If post-Fordist production is coextensive with society at large —
the “social factory” — then so is the revolutionary

All the different forms of waged and non-waged labor throughout society,
and the relationships between them, are creating the body of a new
society. “…[T]he singular figures of postmodern labor do not remain
fragmented and dispersed but tend through communication and
collaboration to converge toward a common social being…”

…This common social being is the powerful matrix that is central in
the production and reproduction of contemporary society and has the
potential to create a new, alternative society. We should regard this
common social being as a new flesh, amorphous flesh that as yet forms no
body. The important question at this point is what kind of body will
these common singularities form? One possibility is that they will be
enlisted in the global armies at the service of capital…. This new
social flesh, in other words, may be formed into the productive organs
of the global social body of capital. Another possibility, however, is
that these common singularities organize themselves autonomously through
a kind of “power of the flesh.”… The power of the flesh is the power
to transform ourselves through historical action and create a new

For Negri and Hardt, the central question is whether this new networked
social body will remain organized as a social factory under the control
of capital, or will cast capital aside as superfluous. To date “the
common productive flesh of the multitude has been formed into the global
political body of capital, divided geographically by hierarchies of
labor and wealth and ruled by a multilevel structure of economic, legal,
and political powers.” Our hope for the future, in contrast, is that
“the productive flesh of the multitude can organize itself otherwise and
discover an alternative to the global political body of

…Our point of departure is our recognition that the production of
subjectivity and the production of the common can together form a
spiral, symbiotic relationship. Subjectivity, in other words, is
produced through cooperation and communication and, in turn, this
produced subjectivity itself produces new forms of cooperation and
communication, which in turn produce new subjectivity, and so forth….
Perhaps in this process of metamorphosis and constitution we should
recognize the formation of the body of the multitude, a fundamentally
new kind of body, a common body, a democratic body…. If the multitude
is to form a body…, it will remain always and necessarily an open,
plural composition and never become a unitary whole divided by
hierarchical organs.

The organization of struggle, like the organization of production, is

In economics we can see numerous instances in which unitary control is
not necessary for innovation and that, on the contrary, innovation
requires common resources, open access and free

The multitude’s networked methods of struggle are a direct outgrowth of
the changes in the organization of production by which the multitude
itself has been constituted.

…The global cycle of struggles develops in the form of a distributed
network. Each local struggle functions as a node that communicates with
all the other nodes without any hub or center of intelligence. Each
struggle remains singular and tied to its local conditions but at the
same time is immersed in the common web. This form of organization is
the most fully realized political example we have of the concept of the
multitude. The global extension of the common does not negate the
singularity of each of those who participates in the network. The same
global cycle of struggles organizes and mobilizes the multitude.

This was in contrast to “the dominant organizational forms of our recent
past,” which was “based on the identity of the struggle, and its unity
is organized under central leadership, such as the party.”

At the 1999 Seattle protests, for example…, what most surprised and
puzzled observers was that groups previously thought to be in opposition
to each other — trade unionists, environmentalists, church groups and
anarchists, and so forth — acted together without any central, unifying
structure that subordinates or sets aside their differences…. In
practice the multitude provides a model whereby our expressions of
singularity are not reduced or diminished in our communication and
collaboration with others in struggle, with our forming greater common
habits, practices, conduct, and desires—with, in short, the global
mobilization and extension of the common….

….The new cycle of struggles is a mobilization of the common that
takes the form of an open, distributed network, in which no center
exerts control and all nodes express themselves freely.

And the post-capitalist society of the future, in turn, will be an
extension of this same organizational logic.

If this has all been true of the New Left since the 1960s, the trend has
been intensified by the collapse of both Marxism-Leninism and Social
Democracy in the face of neo-liberalism. As Peter Critchley argues:

With the demise of state socialism — the collapse of Communism and the
internal degeneration of Social Democracy — one is witnessing the
potential re-emergence of an independent socialist politics….

The reemergence of socialism ‘from below’ challenges the way that
socialism has been institutionalised in the form of ‘the party’, Social
Democratic or Communist….

Authors and traditions long suppressed by Second International
orthodoxy, Nazism and Communism, and the Cold War could now be recovered
as the hold of dominant perspectives began to weaken. Individuals like
Luxemburg, Korsch, Pannekoek and Gorter, Mattick and Landauer, whose own
socialisms had been suppressed by dominant political interests, could
now be presented as offering an alternative. Gramsci’s attempts to
define a new socialist politics could now be appreciated without having
to suppress critical insights for reasons of party. The difficulties and
ambiguities that Lukacs’ found himself in within the international
Communist movement could now be resolved on the side of socialist

Perhaps the most important development of all is the opportunity that
this collapse of old certainties and orthodoxies affords to actually
read Marx without political blinkers. Marx has been released from the
straight jacket that Social Democracy and Communism have imposed upon
him. And Marx’s emancipatory and critical project has been long
submerged under the claims that Social Democracy and Communism have made
to monopolise socialism and the working class constituency. One need no
longer produce a marxism for the parties, a process which begun with the
Second International.

Graeber, an anarchist who played a major part in the formation of the
Occupy movement, describes the networked movements of the 1990s and
2000s as “a kind of continual series of tiny ’68s….”

After the Zapatista world revolution — they called it the Fourth World
War — began in ’94, such mini-’68s began happening so thick and fast the
process almost seemed to have become institutionalized: Seattle, Genoa,
Cancun, Quebec, Hong Kong… And insofar as it was indeed
institutionalized, by global networks the Zapatistas had helped set up,
it was on the basis of a kind of small-a anarchism based on principles
of decentralized direct democracy and direct action. The prospect of
facing a genuine global democratic movement seems to have so frightened
the US authorities, in particular, that they went into veritable panic
mode. There is of course a traditional antidote to the threat of mass
mobilization from below. You start a war. It doesn’t really matter who
the war is against. The point is just to have one; preferably, on as
wide a scale as possible. In this case the US government had the
extraordinary advantage of a genuine pretext – a ragtag crew of hitherto
largely ineffective right-wing Islamists who, for once in history, had
attempted a wildly ambitious terrorist scheme and actually pulled it
off. Rather than simply track down those responsible, the US began
throwing billions of dollars of armament at anything in sight. Ten years
later, the resulting paroxysm of imperial overstretch appears to have
undermined the very basis of the American Empire. What we are now
witnessing is the process of that empire’s collapse.

Wallerstein, similarly, called the 1994 EZLN uprising “the beginning of
the counteroffensive of the world left against the relatively
short-lived successes of the world right between the 1970s and 1994….
What the Zapatistas did was to remind them (and the world left) that
there was indeed an alternative….” The uprising “paved the way to the
successful protests at Seattle in 1999 and then

The EZLN itself, as the movement that launched a quarter-century wave
(so far), is remarkable in that it was an organization with fairly
conventional Marxist-Leninist roots, and was expected to follow the
trajectory of previous such abortive guerrilla warfare efforts — but
instead followed an unprecedented path both in its rejection of the
standard M-L playbook, and in its success. As John Holloway remarks,

it is precisely the fact that they are not an orthodox guerrilla group
that has confounded the state time and time again in its dealings with
them. It is precisely the fact that they are not an orthodox group of
revolutionaries that makes them theoretically and practically the most
exciting development in oppositional politics in the world for many a
long year.

The original founders of EZLN had been members of the Fuerzas de
Liberación Nacional (FLN), a guerrilla organization that was created in
1969 in Monterrey and driven underground in the early 1970s. Its guiding
principles were “the science of history and society, Marxism-Leninism,
which has demonstrated its validity in all the triumphant revolutions of
this century,” and it described its goal as “the taking of political
power by the workers of the countryside and of the cities of the Mexican
Republic, in order to install a popular republic with a socialist
system.” During their time underground they cross-pollinated with
members of other armed Leftist organizations and formed the EZLN in the
early ‘80s.

From then on until their emergence on New Years Day 1994, they engaged
in a process of growing interaction with Indigenous communities in the
Lacandon jungle of Chiapas that led, especially from the late ‘80s on,
to the Indigenous population’s takeover of most leadership functions and
the organization discarding most of the major bullet-points of orthodox
Leninism. As Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos stated in mid-1995, their
“conception of the world and of revolution was badly dented in the
confrontation with the indigenous realities of Chiapas.” The initiative
in this collaboration was taken largely by the local peasants, who
requested EZLN help in their ongoing struggle with the national
government and its attacks on their communal land rights, and who came
to comprise the bulk of EZLN membership. As Holloway described it, “the
EZLN was transformed from being a guerrilla group to being a community
in arms.”

Central to the EZLN’s retreat from orthodox Marxist-Leninist ideology
was its abandonment of vanguardism. As recounted by Marcos in a late
1995 interview, “The original EZLN, the one that is formed in 1983, is a
political organization in the sense that it speaks and what it says has
to be done. The indigenous communities teach it to listen, and that is
what we learn.” And he is quoted elsewhere:

I think that our only virtue as theorists was to have the humility to
recognize that our theoretical scheme did not work, that it was very
limited, that we had to adapt ourselves to the reality that was being
imposed on us.

This was more than just talk. The abandonment of vanguardism was
reflected in two of the basic organizing principles of the Zapatista
movement: “preguntando caminamos” (“asking, we walk”) and “mandar
” (“to command obeying”), which in practice required
community-wide consensus decision-making, and leadership positions that
were recallable at will.

The significance of all this can’t be exaggerated. The departure from
orthodox Leninist praxis was fundamental. To quote Holloway again:

Above all, learning to listen meant turning everything upside down….
[The revolutionary tradition of talking] has a long-established
theoretical basis in the concepts of Marxism-Leninism. The tradition of
talking derives, on the one hand, from the idea that theory (class
consciousness) must be brought to the masses by the party and, on the
other, from the idea that capitalism must be analysed from above, from
the movement of capital rather than from the movement of anti-capitalist
struggle. When the emphasis shifts to listening, both of these
theoretical suppositions are undermined. The whole relation between
theory and practice is thrown into question: theory can no longer be
seen as being brought from outside but is obviously the product of
everyday practice.

This is a direct repudiation of the tenets of Leninism that “the
struggles of the working class… cannot rise above reformist demands,
unless there is the intervention of a revolutionary party…. The
self-emancipation of the proletariat is impossible.”

Another relevant feature of the EZLN’s new style of praxis is its
adoption of a horizontalist model in its relation to other groups.
Marcos stated that the EZLN saw other groups pursuing their own
struggles — “in the meda, …in the trade unions, in the schools, among
the teachers, among the students, in groups of workers, in peasant
organisations” — as “accomplices” with whom the EZLN’s struggle
resonated, people “tuned in to the same frequency” with whom the EZLN
had many things in common, but over whose struggles the EZLN claimed no
leadership. This was true not only of popular struggles in Mexico, but
of their echoes and mirrors “in the streets of Europe, the suburbs of
Asia, the countryside of America, the towns of Africa, and the houses of

This organizational and strategic approach evoked no little skepticism
from the orthodox Left, according to Patrick Cuninghame and Carolina
Ballesteros Corona. The more dogmatic sections of the international
radical Left looked askance at the EZLN’s

strategy for revolutionary transformation to a post-capitalist society
which is based not on a vanguardist seizure of the state and the
commanding heights of the economy, let alone parliamentary reformism,
but on an alliance with other grassroots social movements, including the
Colonos, rural migrant squatters on the periphery of the main urban
centres, the students, gay and women’s movements, and the independent
unions of teachers, electrical and transport workers. The EZLN has
refused to lead or hegemonize this gathering network of movements, but
instead has sought to struggle side-by-side with them, consulting civil
society at every stage in its negotiations with the government, also
through self-organised referenda on a national scale to hear their
opinions and suggestions for changes in its strategy.

In terms of attempts at organizational coordination with other
movements, one-off meetings and congresses (e.g. the National Democratic
Convention in Summer 1994 which brought thousands of activists to the
jungles of Chiapas, a 1995 consultation on the future of the EZLN
attended by over a million people, etc.) resulted in astonishing success
and generated significant enthusiasm around the world. On the other hand
attempts at establishing permanent institutional ties with other
struggles nationally and worldwide, with standing coordination bodies,
largely fizzled out. This demonstrates, Holloway infers, that the main
real force of the EZLN has been “the much less structured notion of

The EZLN uprising, and the global movement in support of it, were the
beginning of a wave of networked global insurgencies against neoliberal
capitalism that has lasted to the present day. Aside from some
demonstrations in the 90s in Europe (the 1998 Multilateral Agreement on
Investment and J18 in 1999, in particular), organized through the same
pattern of networking of affinity groups that has characterized the
entire wave of struggles, the next notable large-scale point on the
timeline was the Seattle anti-WTO demonstration of 1999. The Seattle
demonstrations were the first in a series that targeted meetings of
every major multilateral institution through 2000 and 2001, along with
both American major parties’ nominating conventions in 2000. They
largely petered out in the wave of post-9/11 repression, aside from a
large-scale wave of demonstrations in opposition to the Iraq war in
early 2003.

The Wisconsin demos against Scott Walker in 2010 prefigured Occupy. And
in early 2011, sparked by revelations in the Wikileaks dump of State
Department cables by Chelsea Manning, the Arab Spring began with a wave
of protests that brought down the Tunisian government. The Arab Spring
inspired the M15 movement in Spain, Syntagma in Greece, and Occupy in
the United States — a massive wave of protests whose aftershocks (Black
Lives Matter, BDS, prison strikes, and NoDAPL among many others) persist
to the present.

Aside from these summary paragraphs I have no inclination — let alone
space — to recapitulate their history in greater detail. The comments
below are about the wave of movements as a whole.

A common feature of the post-1994 struggles is that such networked
struggles tend to reproduce themselves from place to place. Note that
the following extended passage by Negri and Hardt was written after the
Seattle movement, but before the Arab Spring:

Extensively, the common is mobilized in communication from one local
struggle to another. Traditionally… the geographical expansion of
movements takes the form of an international cycle of struggles in
which revolts spread from one local context to another like a contagious
disease through the communication of common practices and desires…. In
each of these cycles of struggles, the common that is mobilized
extensively and communicates across the globe is not only the commonly
recognized enemy — such as slavery, industrial capital, or colonial
regimes — but also common methods of combat, common ways of living, and
common desires for a better world….

A new international cycle finally emerged around the issues of
globalization in the late 1990s. The coming-out party of the new cycle
of struggles were the protests at the WTO summit in Seattle in 1999….
Suddenly the riots against IMF austerity programs in one country,
protests against a World Bank project in another, and demonstrations
against NAFTA in a third were all revealed to be elements of a common
cycle of struggles. The cycle of struggles has been consolidated in a
certain sense at the annual meetings of the World Social Forum and the
various regional social forums. At each of these social forums
activists, NGOs, and intellectuals meet to exchange views on the
problems of the present form of globalization and the possibilities for
an alternative form. Each social forum also functions as a celebration
of the commonality that extends throughout the various movements and
revolts across the globe that form this cycle…. We should emphasize,
once again, that what the forces mobilized in this new global cycle have
is not just a common enem… but also common practices, languages,
conduct, habits, forms of life, and desires for a better future. The
cycle, in other words, is not only reactive but also active and

The global mobilization of the common in this new cycle of struggle does
not negate or even overshadow the local nature or singularity of each
struggle. The communication with other struggles, in fact, reinforces
the power and augments the wealth of each single one….

The global cycle of struggles develops in the form of distributed
network. Each local struggle functions as a node that communicates with
all the other nodes without any hub or center of intelligence. Each
struggle remains singular and tied to its local conditions but at the
same time is immersed in the common web. This form of organization is
the most fully realized example we have of the

It is, accordingly, a mistake to talk about the “death” of networked
movements like Occupy. Even asking “What happened to Occupy?” or “What
happened to M15?” as though they were discrete entities with a beginning
and an end reflects a misconception as to their nature. It makes more
sense to think of the whole trajectory of movements including the Arab
Spring, M15 and Syntagma, Madison, Occupy, and its successors, as one
loose global network of associated networked movements. This networked
movement is always throwing up new avatars, with new names, which appear
to decline after a while. But when something new arises — and it always
does, whether in the same country or halfway around the world — it’s
built on the same infrastructure and foundations, and the same social
capital, as its predecessors. Here’s how Nathan Schneider described the
phenomenon in an interview:

[Occupy] very powerfully succeeded at introducing activists from around
the country to one another and turned a lot of people into activists
that weren’t before. It produced a tremendous number of networks, both
online and offline, which continue to mobilize people on a number of
fronts, though few are still called Occupy.

It also won a ton of disparate victories in communities across the
country, from small and large labor disputes, a dramatic reduction in
stop and frisks in New York, to the overturning of regulations
concerning the policing of the homeless in various cities. It
strengthened and encouraged various types of political organization as
well as turned movements into international networks around the world
that didn’t exist before.

John Holloway dismisses concerns about the institutional continuity or
persistence of any particular movement.

I think there is an accumulation of experience, and also an accumulation
of growing awareness that spreads from one country to another, that
capitalism just isn’t working and that it is in serious problems…
There is a growing confidence perhaps that the cracks we create or the
crazinesses we create may really be the basis for a new world and a new
society, and may really be the only way forward.

What I don’t like about the idea of perpetuation is that it has to be a
smooth upward progress. I don’t think it works like that. I think it’s
more like a social flow of rebellion, something that moves throughout
the world, with eruptions in one place and then in another place. But
there are continuities below the discontinuities. We have to think in
terms of disrupting bubbling movements rather than thinking that it all
depends on whether we can perpetuate the movement in one place. If we
think in terms of perpetuation in one place, I think at times it can
lead us into either an institutionalization, which I think is not much
help, or it can lead us into a sense of defeat, perhaps, which I don’t
think is right.

The 2011 movements have permanently changed the general environment. As
Stacco Troncoso put it:

Think of a sugar cube. Held in your hand it is
compact, with a recognizable shape and texture, easy to measure and
describe. Drop the sugar cube into a cup of coffee and stir that around.
Magic! The cube has disappeared. Take a sip, though, and you’ll agree
that the flavor has changed.

As already mentioned, the ripples of the 2011 movements were, in fact,
quite powerful. They include the BDS shutdown of ports, Black Lives
Matter, and NoDAPL. The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016 was
infused with energy from Occupy, and in Spain the new municipalist
movements of Barcelona and Madrid were driven in large part by veterans
of M15. Since January 2017 the wave has continued in the
form of movements in resistance to Trump, like demonstrations shutting
down ICE headquarters in many cities in protest against children in
cages, and above all as of this writing (September 2020) the BLM
uprisings after the George Floyd murder.

And the arc of movements from 2011 to the present has staying power, in
part, because it reflects the consciousness of a generation that was
galvanized by a set of common experiences. Participants in recent
uprisings in Latin America, Lebanon, and Hong Kong, the Extinction
Rebellion protestors in London, etc., are young Millennials and
Generation Z, the younger brothers and sisters of those who participated
in the 2011 wave — as The Guardian’s Jack Shenker puts it, “the
children of the financial crash.”

Each of these upheavals has its own spark – a hike in transport fares in
Santiago, or a proposed tax on users of messaging apps like WhatsApp in
Beirut – and each involves different patterns of governance and

And yet it’s clear that we are witnessing the biggest surge in global
protest activity since the early 2010s, when a “movement of the squares”
saw mass rallies in capital cities across the Arab world, followed by
Occupy demonstrations in the global north. Historically speaking, the
past decade has seen more protests than at any time since the 1960s….

The most significant connection is generational. The majority of those
protesting now are the children of the financial crisis – a generation
that has come of age during the strange and febrile years after the
collapse of a broken economic and political orthodoxy, and before its
replacement has emerged.

The most important thing to remember, as Graeber pointed out, is that
“once people’s political horizons have been broadened, the change is

Hundreds of thousands of Americans (and not only Americans, of course,
but Greeks, Spaniards, and Tunisians) now have direct experience of
self-organization, collective action, and human solidarity. This makes
it almost impossible to go back to one’s previous life and see things
the same way. While the world’s financial and political elites skate
blindly toward the next 2008-scale crisis, we’re continuing to carry out
occupations of buildings, farms, foreclosed homes, and workplaces —
temporary or permanent — organizing rent strikes, seminars, and debtors’
assemblies, and in doing so, laying the groundwork for a genuinely
democratic culture, and introducing the skills, habits, and experience
that would make an entirely new conception of politics come to

The rise of networked, horizontal resistance movements has given rise to
a growing dichotomy between the old-line, verticalist Institutional Left
and the new autonomous Left. As described by Cristina Flesher Fominaya,

[t]he classic organizational model of the Institutional Left is
representative, with vertical structures…, decision-making through a
voting system or through negotiations between representatives, and a
clear division of labour….

…The Institutional Left model defends the transformation of society
through its institutions, either by controlling them or by influencing

The autonomous model, for its part rejects representative democracy and
majority rule; instead, it defends a participatory model, based on
direct democracy and self-governance, with horizontal (non-hierarchical
structures, decision-making through consensus….

The network form of organization and communication allows for the
integration and interaction of multiple issues and identities…. The
networks are ‘biodegradable’, dissolving and regenerating into new forms
of organization and action….

The horizontal movements of the last few decades differ from the
revolutionary movements of the 19th and early 20th
centuries, among other ways, in that the methods of struggle are
becoming more and more prefigurative — in Marina Sitrin’s words,

that are creating the future in their present social relationships.
Unlike past movements, social change isn’t deferred to a later date by
demanding reform from the state, or by taking state power and
eventually, instituting these reforms…. [T]heir strategy for the
creation of a new society is not grounded in either state dependency or
the taking of power to create another state. Their intention is, to
borrow John Holloway’s phrase, to change the world without taking

Sitrin, in the Introduction to her book of the same name, says
horizontalidad was a word coined to reflect the principles of the new
social movements in Argentina, “a break with vertical ways of organizing
and relating” based on “democratic communication on a level plane.”

They are working class people taking over factories and running them
collectively. They are the urban middle class, many recently declassed,
working to meet their needs in solidarity with those around them. They
are the unemployed, like so many unemployed around the globe, facing the
prospect of never finding regular work, yet collectively finding ways to
survive and become self-sufficient, using mutual-aid and love. They are
autonomous indigenous communities struggling to liberate stolen land.

In Argentina, these active movements are now communicating, assisting,
and learning from one another, and thus constructing new types of
networks that reject the hierarchical template bequeathed to them by
established politics.

S. Tormey’s description of the global movement against the Iraq war in
early 2003 sounds a lot like the networked movements that have arisen

What they (virtual networks) fostered was a form of interaction that
preserved the autonomy and integrity of the constituent parts. No group
was subject to the will of another. No group had to recognize one as a
leading group or as the ‘vanguard’ of the movement. There was no need
for bureaucracy, permanent staffs, officials, ‘leadership’, or even
premises, beyond somewhere to house a server. Here was a form of
interaction that denied the need for the very institutional and
logistical framework that had for a century defined the terms and
conditions of political activism.

Negri and Hardt wrote that the 2011 movements “share[d] their internal
organization as a multitude.”

The foreign press corps searched desperately in Tunisia and Egypt for a
leader of the movements. During the most intense period of the Tahrir
Square occupation, for example, they would each day presume a different
figure was the real leader…. What the media couldn’t understand or
accept was that there was no leader in Tahrir Square. The movement’s
refusal to have a leader was recognizable throughout the year but
perhaps was most pronounced in Wall Street. A series of intellectuals
and celebrities made appearances at Zuccotti Park, but no one could
consider any of them leaders; they were guests of the multitude. From
Cairo and Madrid to Athens and New York, the movements instead developed
horizontal mechanisms for organization. They didn’t build headquarters
or form central committees but spread out like swarms, and most
important, they created democratic practices of decision making so that
all participants could lead together.

It is true that these struggles confront the same enemy, characterized
by the powers of debt, the media, the security regime, and the corrupt
systems of political representation. However, the primary point is that
their practices, strategies, and objectives, although different, are
able to connect and combine with each other to form a plural, shared
project. The singularity of each struggle fosters rather than hinders
the creation of a common terrain.

…[T]hese movements were born in something like a communicative
laboratory, and indeed, the glue that hold them together seems initially
to be linguistic, cooperative, and network based (like many forms of
cognitive labor)…. The horizontal decision-making processes of the
multitude require temporal autonomy. The communication of slogans and
militant desires often begins in small community and neighborhood
groups, but then at a certain point spreads virally….

…Small groups and communities find ways to connect with one another
and to create common projects not by renouncing but by expressing their
differences. Federalism is thus a motor of composition.

…The pluralism of struggles that emerge from differing traditions and
express different goals combines with a cooperative and federative logic
of assembly to create a model of constituent democracy in which these
differences are able to interact and connect with each other to form a
shared composition. We have thus seen so far a plurality of movements
against global capital, against the dictatorship of finance, against the
biopowers that destroy the earth, and for the shared open access to and
self-management of the common….

It should be obvious in this context that the modern political party —
either in its representative, parliamentary form or in its vanguard form
— cannot serve as an organ of this kind of decision making. In the past,
parties have frequently sought to recuperate the energy and ideals of
social movements in order to legitimate their own power. You have done
your work in the streets, they tell the multitude; now go home and let
us take up the cause in the halls of government…. [But t]he power of
decision created by the movements must reside with those who are acting
and cannot be transferred beyond that common terrain.

…These movements are powerful not despite their lack of leaders but
because of it. They are organized horizontally as multitudes, and their
insistence on democracy at all levels is more than a virtue but a key to
their power. Furthermore, their slogans and arguments have spread so
widely not despite but because the positions they express cannot be
summarized or disciplined in a strict ideological line. There are no
party cadres telling people what to think, but instead there exist
discussions that are open to a wide variety of views that sometimes may
even contradict each other but nonetheless, although slowly, develop a
coherent perspective.

Harry Cleaver also stressed the plurality of movements involved:

…[T]he common opposition to capitalism is not accompanied by the old
notion of a unified alternative project of socialism. On the contrary,
such a vision is steadily being displaced by a proliferation of distinct
projects and a common understanding that there is no need for universal

Party lines and official ideologies/platforms raise the thresholds of
coordinated action. With no single official ideology, but only a common
orientation against the system of power, groups with many ideologies can
participate in a direct action based only on their shared immediate
objective, thereby raising the size of the swarm involved. Ideological
litmus tests above and beyond agreement on a particular direct action
change the permissionless nature of participation and exclude all who do
not buy into the entire ideology as a package.

The networked resistance movements of recent years have been governed by
the same stigmergic principles of organization shared by peer-to-peer
culture in general in the networked age. As W. Lance Bennett, Alexandra
Segerberg and Shawn Walker note, peer production includes not only
open-source software and Wikipedia but

collaborative activist projects such as the network of Independent Media
Centers (IMCs) of the global justice movement. Such projects may involve
vast numbers of dispersed and differently engaged individuals that come
together to create a common good — be it protest or software — around
which further collective action will revolve. Despite the open-ended
nature of such participation, peer-produced projects involve
self-motivated production and self-organization: participants ideally
contribute to the project in modular and granular ways and help shape
the conditions of the action so that the projects build on
self-selection and decentralization rather than coercion and
hierarchically assigned tasks.

More recently, Nicholas Hildyard of Corner House sees radical movements
as primarily about developing the agency of oppressed and exploited
people themselves rather than influencing existing institutions. He
doesn’t preclude “making policy demands that are directed at reforming
existing institutions.” But the primary focus, from the perspective of
the producing classes as revolutionary subject, is on demands that
“arise from the pressing need to build alliances and to expand political
space.” Justice becomes a matter of discovery by the
revolutionary subject — “the process of discovery itself shapes
‘justice’ through the relationships it forms and the new class conflicts
that may emerge from those relationships.” And the
coalescence of a revolutionary subject on a macro scale is the result,
not of organizational mass and central coordination on the Old Left
model, but the spontaneous proliferation of horizontal ties of
solidarity between movements engaged in the process of combating the
injustice where they live and creating space for building a new society.

It is a product of those flashes of mutual recognition where people come
to see something of their own struggle in someone else’s, and vice versa
where they come to identify with others who may have quite different
interests and to whom they may previously have been indifferent or even
opposed; and where they are drawn together not so much because they come
from or are ‘embedded in absolute sameness’, but because they come to
realise that their life courses are being ‘determined by ultimately
similar processes and outcomes’. In this process, they open themselves
up to the realisation of something previously unrecognised, shifting the
boundaries of what is ‘possible’ in the process.

We constitute ourselves a revolutionary subject through the
relationships we form in process of our local efforts at building a new

To the extent that struggles emerge from the process of building
counter-institutions at a local level or issue level, and the opposition
we face from power structures in that process, the revolutionary
potential of stigmergic organization reveals itself in its power to
instantly facilitate global awareness, shift resources, and to transform
the struggle of each into the struggle of all in an unprecedented

Hildyard shows an especial fondness for the kinds of precedents in
working class self-organization described by thinkers like Pyotr
Kropotkin, E. P. Thompson and Colin Ward.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when working-class
culture was being constructed through myriad relationships that brought
an expanded awareness of oppression, working class life went on ‘more or
less entirely outside of society’: unions, dissenting church groups,
workers’ clubs, reading groups, worker-run creches, mutual aid societies
and other cornerstones of working-class communities arose partly because
wider society ignored working-class needs for schooling, healthcare and
childcare…. To survive, workers were reliant on their own institutions
and support networks. These were not only a response to the deprivations
suffered: they were also a conscious attempt to build an ‘alternate
social and moral order’.

And today, the increasingly precarious and lumpenized working class “is
re-emerging to forge new cultures of provisioning, nurturing and mutual
support to weather the destruction that the whirlwind of neoliberalism
is inflicting.” “Rather than looking for a ‘to do’ list
that will be implemented by someone else, they are building their own
power ‘to do’….”

[Last Edited October 6, 2020]

Chapter Four: The Abandonment of Workerism

I. The Limited Relevance of Proletarianism in the Mass Production Age

Even at the height of the industrial age, the proletariat never became
a unified or homogenous class, or lost its local cultural traditions.
Déclassé skilled artisans played a leading role in working class
radicalism in the early-to-mid 19th century, and skilled workers on the
shop floor under the gang system later played a leading role in the
development of movements like syndicalism.

And the industrial proletariat never incorporated the entirety of the
producing classes. There were always islands of small-scale production
for use in the social/informal economy even by industrial workers
themselves. They were marginalized by the political power of capital,
not by the superior efficiency of large-scale capitalist production.
There were also islands of self-employment, and the so-called
lumpenproletariat was far more politically significant than made out to
be in Marx’s schema.

For that matter the industrial proletariat itself, as James Scott points
out, never entirely surrendered its “petty bourgeois” dreams of
independence on a bit of village land or in an artisan shop.

Petty bourgeois dreams infuse the imagination of the industrial
proletariat…. The reddest of the red proletarians, the militant coal
miners and steelworkers of the Ruhr in 1919, on whom Lenin reposed his
revolutionary hopes, are a striking case in point. When asked what they
wished for, their desires were remarkably modest. They wanted higher
wages, a shorter day, and longer rests, as one might expect. But beyond
what Marxists would disparagingly call “trade-union consciousness,” they
yearned to be treated honorably by their bosses (and called “Herr X”)
and aspired to have a small cottage with a garden to call their own. It
is hardly surprising that a newly industrialized proletariat would
retain social aspirations from their village origins, but their demand
for the amenities of social respect and for the cultural trappings of an
independent life on the land ill fit either the stereotype of an
“economistic” working class with both eyes fixed on the loot or that of
a revolutionary proletariat.

Over the past several decades, standard opinion polls in the United
States have asked industrial workers what kind of work they would prefer
to factory work. An astonishingly high percentage pines to open a shop
or a restaurant or to farm.

It’s hard not to suspect that many contemporary Marxist-Leninists would
find Marx himself insufferably “liberal” or “petty bourgeois.” The
industrial proletariat’s own ideal existence could be described, only
slightly tongue-and-cheek, as “to do one thing today and another
tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in
the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever
becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” There is a fairly close
parallelism between Marx’s vision of the emancipated communist future,
and of the evicted and proletarianized peasant’s memory of village life
and independence on the commons. And leaving aside the dubious vulgar
Marxist proposition that industrialization on the capitalist model was
more objectively “progressive” than would have been — say — bridging the
gap between eotechnic and neotechnic with a hypothetical Mumfordian
alternative, it is true in any case that the new technologies we
described in Chapter Two open the possibility of achieving this utopian
communist existence of the future without further intervening

It’s ironic that Lenin said the working class, left to itself, could
only achieve “trade union consciousness.” Proletarianization itself in
the 19th century was a powerful force for de-radicalizing the working
class. The most radical socialist ideas, as recounted by E.P. Thompson,
came from petty bourgeois/skilled artisan elements like master weavers,
printers, etc. And syndicalism emerged mainly from master craftsmen on
the shop floor, when direct organization of factory work was still
carried out under their direction in the gang system.

The industrially organized “army of labor” Marx and Engels had so much
faith in actually habituated workers to being directed by a hierarchy of
labor leaders who, in turn, were vulnerable to the Iron Law of Oligarchy
and cooptation within a reformist labor accord. It also opened the way
to deskilling under the 20th century Taylorist/Fordist mass production
regime, which eliminated the very bases of independence within the
production process from which so much radical/syndicalist thought had
been generated. So the proletariat, Marx’s own hope for the nucleus of a
“historic bloc,” was actually rendered capable only of trade union
consciousness by the process of proletarianization itself.

II. Technology and the Declining Relevance of Proletarianism

The most promising way out is deproletarianizing production technology
that recreates skilled artisan labor as the nucleus of a new,
post-proletarian and post-mass production historic bloc. In which model,
secession will replace conquest of power as the revolutionary model.

And now that cheap, ephemeral tools for small-scale production are
becoming radically cheaper and more efficient, the potential to
challenge the power of capital from outside the organized industrial
proletariat is increasing enormously.

Since the formative period of the Old Left — and especially in the past
two decades — the conventional full-time wage employment model has
become increasingly irrelevant. The size of the full time wage labor
force has steadily shrunk as a portion of the total economy; both the
permanently unemployed and the precariat (i.e. the underemployed,
part-time workers, temporary workers, and guest workers) have grown as a
share of the economy. For these workers the old model of a
workplace-based social safety net does not exist, and it has been
radically scaled back even for remaining full-time workers.

Further, the precariat for the most part do not identify with the
workplace or wage employment in the same way that their parents and
grandparents did, and often have value systems more in common with
earlier socialists who saw their economic identity in terms of social or
guild relations outside the workplace. To quote Guy Standing

Put bluntly, the proletariat’s representatives demand decent labour,
lots of it; the precariat wishes to escape from labour, materially and
psychologically, because its labour is instrumental, not self-defining.
Many in the precariat do not even aspire to secure labour. They saw
their parents trapped in long-term jobs, too frightened to leave, partly
because they would have lost modest enterprise benefits that depended on
‘years of service’. But in any event, those jobs are no longer on offer
to the precariat. Twentieth-century spheres of labour protection —
labour law, labour regulations, collective bargaining, labourist social
security — were constructed around the image of the firm, fixed
workplaces, and fixed working days and work-weeks that apply only to a
minority in today’s tertiary online society. While proletarian
consciousness is linked to long-term security in a firm, mine, factory
or office, the precariat’s consciousness is linked to a search for
security outside the workplace.

III The Abandonment of Proletarianism by the New Left

Meanwhile, new Leftist movements have arisen based on labor’s actual
experience of alienation from the workplace, and resurrecting
pre-existing “utopian” models of socialism based on leisure and the
dissolution of work into social life.

The first step away from the workerism of the Old Left came with the New
Left’s emphasis on marginalized communities outside the industrial
workforce, and on building community-based rather than primarily
workplace-based alliances for social change.

Tom Hayden, writing in 1966, sketched out a Movement centered not on the
industrial proletariat, but on the poor of all races — and particularly
the rural southern black poor and the poor of the northern ghettoes. To
the extent that poor whites had been mobilized alongside them, “these
organizing efforts were led by local people or independent organizers
outside the structure of the labor movement.” And “a coalition of poor
whites with Negroes depends, most of all, on whether a way can be found
to organize workers independent of AFL-CIO routines.” And to the labor
organizations participated in such coalitions, it would be as part of
larger community alliances.

Concretely, that means democratic control by the workers of their union
locals, and the entry of those locals into political activities and
coalitions on the community level. It also means community action and
organization among the millions of low-paid workers presently outside
the labor movement….

An organizational form that suggests the style of such a movement is the
“community union,” involving working-class and poor people in local
insurgency. Open and democratic, the community union offers a real
alternative to the kind of participation permitted in civil rights
groups, trade unions and Democratic party machines. It might take a
variety of forms: block clubs, housing committees, youth groups, etc.
The union’s insistence on the relevance of “little people,” as well as
its position outside and against the normal channels, would create a
rooted sense of independence among the members.

Alongside the poor, another major component of Hayden’s Movement was
radical students rejecting the Organization Man lifestyle of their
parents, which they were expected to pursue as a matter of course. And
the role of students went beyond alliance with the poor in support of
the latter’s goals.

Now it appears that students are finding ways to organize effectively
around other problems too: university reform and peace…. On many
campuses students are beginning to form unions of their own, as well as
independent seminars pointed toward the eventual organization of a “free
university.” In addition, they are beginning to mobilize community
action against the Vietnamese war — thereby encountering their friends
already at work among the poor. These efforts may thread the several
protest movements in the country into a grassroots coalition.

And finally, the Movement took in a growing number of alienated
professionals within the bureaucratic machinery of capitalist state and
corporation, the press, and the welfare apparatus.

Insurgency within American institutions is spreading: professors
fighting their administrations, lawyers against the bar association,
welfare workers against the political machine, muckrakers against the
press establishments. This insurgency is bound to increase as the new
generation of student activists graduates into the professions. And it
is an insurgency which needs a movement of poor people, insistently
demanding new social purposes from the professionals.

Autonomist Marxism continued and further developed the anti-workerist
themes of the New Left. The autonomist Harry Cleaver, writing in the
1970s, observed a shift in contemporary industrial workers’ struggles
from a demand for workers’ control to the refusal of work itself, along
with a shift to struggles outside the wage system altogether and in the
spheres of social reproduction of labor power and a shift from
insurrectionist to prefigurative strategies.

First, the continuing spread of Taylorist and Fordist deskilling
produced such an alienation of young workers from work that, by the
1960s, the desire to take over work and make it less alienating was
being more and more replaced by its simple refusal. They didn’t want
control; they wanted out. Second, the refusal of work on the job was
increasingly accompanied by a refusal of the unwaged work of reproducing
labour power in life outside the formal job. Moreover, the refusal of
both kinds of work was accompanied by new kinds of non-work activity.
Against the ‘cultural’ mechanisms of domination, highlighted and
analyzed by the critical theorists, was being pitted a ‘cultural
revolution’ in the 1960s that continued on into the 1970s and since.
Indeed, the self-activity of the women’s movement, the student movement,
the environmental movement and of many peasant struggles quite
self-consciously set out to elaborate new ways of being, new
relationships among people and between humans and nature. As opposed to
the traditional Leninist view that building a new society could only
occur after revolution-as-overthrow-of- capital, these new movements
that were rapidly undermining the Keynesian capitalist world order
demanded, and indeed were undertaking, the building of ‘the future’ in
the present.

Cleaver saw autonomism as a shift away from “workerism” and to “the
people.” Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, and their followers in the
Monthly Review group,

still defined the working class only as wage workers and thus identified
the struggles of unemployed Black Panthers, militant Students for a
Democratic Society, radical feminists, or welfare rights activists as
being outside that class. All that could be seen of the working class
within this perspective were the hard-hat attacks on antiwar
demonstrators. What place could there be for Marx in a vision in which
the working class had sold out and allied with the capitalist class and
the only true revolutionaries were nonworking-class students, women,
Third World minorities, and peasants? In the place of the vision of the
working class as the major protagonist in the struggle emerged that of
‘the people’.

The dominant forms of Marxist theory, framed around the capitalist
factory and its workers, were becoming obsolete. That is, they were
guilty of

a reading of Capital that is not only limited to being a passive
interpretation, but which also, by restricting itself to the ‘economic’
sphere or ‘base’ effectively, makes of political economy the theory of
the capitalist factory and its waged workers alone. This has the effect
of excluding the rest of society from the analysis — not only the state
and party politics but also the unemployed, the family, the school,
health care, the media, art, and so on…. Yet it is precisely in these
‘other’ social spheres that many of the major social conflicts of today
are occurring. At the turn of the century, when working-class struggle
was located primarily (but not uniquely by any means) in the factory,
there was perhaps some excuse for reading Capital as a theoretical
model of the capitalist factory. But as a result of the extensive social
engineering of the 1920s and 1930s through which capitalist social
planners sought to restructure virtually all of society, and as a result
of the nature of recent social struggles against such planning, such
interpretations today are grossly inadequate…. Orthodoxy revived
historical materialism and tried to shove peasant revolts into the box
of pre-capitalist modes of production. Student revolts were classified
as either petty bourgeois or lumpen. Women’s revolts were within the
framework of some ‘domestic’ mode of production. All were thus set aside
as unimportant secondary phenomena because they were not truly working
class. This of course set up the Party once again as the mediating
interpreter of the real working-class interests and justified the
attempt to repress or co-opt these struggles.

…We can thus see that one great weakness of reading Marx as political
economy has been to isolate and reduce his analysis to that of the

The Italian autonomists, according to Cleaver, abandoned the workerism
of the Old Left and in fact adopted in its place the “refusal of work.”

This position was also supported theoretically by the abandonment of the
old leftist perspective on work (which was rooted in the skilled
workers’ experience from the period of early capitalism through the
councils and soviets): that the struggle was to liberate work from
capital, to achieve nonalienated work. As Tronti pointed out, under the
conditions of the unskilled mass worker, work itself could only be seen
as a means of social control to be abolished, not upgraded. This
understanding led directly to the realization that the basic
characteristic of working-class struggle in this period is not only an
escape from capital but also an escape from existence as working class.
The aim of the mass worker is to cease to be a worker, not to make a
religion of work.

According to Cleaver, Marx’s own non-workerist view (i.e., compared to
the dominant form of “official Marxism” formulated by Engels, Kautsky et
al after his death) of political agency in the transition was closely
linked to his views on liberation from work after capitalism.

Time and again Marx’s evocation of post-capitalist society involves the
image of the individual (and collectivity) doing many things, not just
working. The transcendence of alienation can only come with such a
quantitative reduction of work that work becomes one, among other,
integral aspects of a richly diverse human existence. The liberation of
work can only come with the liberation from work, that is to say from
the capitalist reduction of life to work. Once we see these things, we
are freed from the productivism of all the old socialist illusions; we
are free to think about struggle, revolution and freedom in terms of the
simultaneous demotion of work from the center of life and its
restoration as one means, among others, of fulfilling human

And working class movement’s goals in Marx’s time were arguably closer
to this vision than to that of the Old Left.

From the very beginning, as illustrated by Marx’s account of the fight
over the working day, the working class resisted the imposition of the
wage system and commodification of labor-power, not so much by fighting
for increased control over work as by fighting to liberate as much free
time as possible. The working class’s struggle was for freedom from work
— leisure.

Cleaver saw the new currents of the Left as seizing on the post-scarcity
vision of the “Fragment on Machines,” abandoning the traditional Old
Left demand for “full employment” in favor of a universally shortened
work week in keeping with the amount of labor needed to produce the
existing standard of living.

Accordingly, the struggle today for escape from labor time and autonomy
is entirely continuous with a vision of the future in which communism is
“free time and nothing else.”

The power of refusal is the power to carve out times and spaces
relatively free of the capitalist imposition of work…. The power of
self-valorization is the power to fill those spaces with alternative
activities and new forms of sociality — to elaborate the communist
future in the present.

…[H]is understanding of both the role of imposed work in capitalism and
the long history of the workers struggle to reduce it led him to believe
that in post-capitalist society free time as the basis for the “full
development of individuality” would replace labor as the source of value
in society. Thus, post-capitalist society would most likely be
characterized, at least in part, by the open-endedness characteristic of
“disposable time,” an expanding sphere of freedom which would allow a
multi-sided development of the individual and of

At the same time, the revolutionary subject ceases to be defined by the
hegemony of a historically progressive industrial proletariat, and
instead becomes an interlinkage of many self-defined struggles against
not only capital’s domination of the workplace but all the interlinked
forms of domination.

There can no longer be any doubt that proliferating interconnections
among diverse, geographically dispersed, grassroots social struggles –
e.g., those of waged workers (often precariously waged), indigenous
peoples, human rights advocates, ethnic and cultural minorities,
environmentalists, women, students, immigrants – are resulting in a
deepening and broadening threat to the contemporary capitalist social
order. On the one hand, it is the very proliferation, intensity and
interlinkages of struggles attacking one or another dimension of
capitalist domination that is so striking – virtually all types of
existing social relationships of control are being

The model of revolutionary struggle is no longer an alliance of
progressive forces under the leadership of the proletariat, but “a
diversity of social projects” or “acceleration of struggles,” all
working together to build “a post-capitalist politics of difference
without antagonism.” The goal becomes “circulation of

The question, ‘How can we build our own power to refuse work or to
self-valorise in our own way?’ becomes, ‘How can we link up with others
so that our efforts do not remain isolated but are mutually

…The strength of relatively small groups, such as the Palestinians,
the black freedom movements in southern Africa, or the Zapatistas in
southern Mexico, has always been largely due to their ability to build
networks of alliance to circulate their struggles beyond their specific
locales to other groups in other parts of the world.

Cleaver’s analysis of the collective subject in many ways anticipated,
or was contemporaneous with, Toni Negri’s views on knowledge workers,
the social factory, etc.

With respect to the current period of crisis and restructuring, some
Italian and French theorists of working class autonomy have suggested
that at the heart of the current crisis of capitalism is a new kind of
working class subjectivity which is replacing that of the mass worker.
They suggest that only by understanding the positive characteristics of
that subjectivity, which ruptured capitalist control and continues to
defy its present efforts at subordination, can we understand either
those efforts or the emergent possibilities of liberation. One early
characterization of this new subjectivity (which is actually seen as a
diversity of subjectivities) was that of a new “tribe of moles” — a
loose community of highly mobile, drop-out, part-time workers, part-time
students, participants in the underground economy, creators of temporary
and ever changing autonomous zones of social life that forced a
fragmentation of and crisis in the mass-worker organization of the
social factory. Another characterization has been that of the
“socialized worker” which focuses on how the crisis of the social
factory has been generated precisely by a subject whose self-activity in
all moments of life challenges the fabric of capitalist control. Within
the interpersonal interactions and exchanges of information that they
associate with the “computer and informational society,” these theorists
believe to have identified an increasingly collective appropriation of
(i.e., control over) “communication.” The analysis runs as follows: the
period of mass production was characterized by radical divisions between
and within mental and manual labor (both within and outside of the
factory) that limited daily participation in any kind of collective
system of interactive communication to a small minority of skilled
workers (e.g., engineers and scientists) — this was a continuation of
the same divisions both Kropotkin and Marx condemned. However, the
dynamics of the class struggle has increasingly forced a spatial and
temporal recomposition of work that is undermining that division. On the
one hand, automation has been dramatically reducing the role of simple
manual labor — increasingly in the “service” sector as well as in
manufacturing. At the same time, the needs of global coordination and
continuous innovation have expanded not only the role of mental labor
but its collective character, creating ever more jobs that require the
manipulation of information flows, intelligent and informed decision
making within production, independent initiative, creativity and the
coordination of complex networks of social cooperation. The essential
point is that at a social level, these developments embody the
adaptation of capitalist command to the emergence of an increasingly
independent collective subject whose self-organization of essentially
intellectual work and play repeatedly outruns capital’s ability to limit
and control it.

The analysis of this emerging collective subject has suggested that it
has begun to impose its hegemony on the class composition as a whole,
much in the way the “mass worker” dominated the prior “Fordist” period
of capitalist development. In other words, while during the period of
the “mass worker” (Fordism) neither all nor even most workers were
employed in factories on assembly lines, nevertheless they formed the
paradigmatic core whose organization influenced all others. The argument
is that, in the present period, the new attributes of this collective
subject (interlinked intellectual cooperation, appropriation of social
communication) are constituting differentiated communities with new
values and rejecting traditional politics and labor organization. They
are also increasingly coming to characterize the class as a whole as
they take on, more and more, the political role of igniting, solidifying
and linking social struggles. This grounding of the collective processes
of constitution in communication is a common characteristic in the
development of an array of “new social movements” that have been widely
seen to be the most important components of social confrontation in this

Note that this reference to “new social movements” was written in 1992,
two years before the launch of the EZLN uprising in Chiapas, and long
before the Seattle anti-globalization movement — let alone the Arab
Spring, M15, Syntagma, Occupy, BLM or NoDAPL.

Continuing on to Negri himself, this shift away from workerism is
reflected in his and Hardt’s substitution of the “multitude” for the
traditional Marxist conception of the proletariat. The multitude, unlike
the industrial proletariat, is coextensive with the productive activity
of society at large — basically extending to “all those who work under
the rule of capital and thus potentially as the class of those who
refuse the rule of capital.” This is a major change from 19th and 20th
century conception of the working class, which was limited to industrial
workers — or at most to wage laborers.

The working class is thought to be the primary productive class and
directly under the rule of capital, and thus the only subject that can
act effectively against capital. The other exploited classes might also
struggle against capital but only subordinated to the leadership of the
working class…. The concept [of multitude] rests… on the claim that
there is no political priority among the forms of labor: all forms of
labor are today socially productive, they produce in common, and share
too a common potential to resist the domination of capital…. In order
to verify this concept of the multitude and its political project we
will have to establish that… the conditions exist for the various
types of labor to communicate, collaborate, and become

Those “excluded from waged labor — the poor, the unemployed the unwaged,
the homeless, and so forth” are still part of the multitude, “because
these classes are in fact included in social

…Today…, to the extent that social production is increasingly
defined by immaterial labor such as cooperation or the construction of
social relationships and networks of communication, the activity of all
in society including the poor becomes more and more directly

…Just as social production takes place today equally inside and
outside the factory walls, so too it takes place equally inside and
outside the wage relationship.

According to Cleaver the autonomists took the pessimistic Frankfurt
School view of society at large as subjected to Taylorist logic and
turned into an extension of the factory, and turned it on its head. If
society as a whole is a “factory” for reproducing labor-power — not only
materially but culturally and ideologically — then society as a whole
also becomes an arena for class conflict. The struggle against
capitalism ceases to be a project merely of workers in the factories,
and unites diverse struggles of racial minorities, women, students,
environmentalists, etc., in the larger social sphere against the
reproduction of capitalism at a systemic level. Rather than cementing
capitalist control within the factories, the “social factory” forced
capital to defend itself on a society-wide front.

Capital expanded into the “social factory” to incorporate education,
unpaid housework, etc., into underwriting the costs of reproducing
labor-power for free that otherwise might have required increased wages.
Labor correspondingly shifted from a fight over the working day alone
into a refusal of work altogether — fighting not only to reduce the pace
of work or reclaim free time on the job, but contesting the capitalist
nature of so-called “free time” in the social factory outside the job
and fighting to make it actually free.

Negri and Hardt elaborate in greater detail the ways in which capitalist
control is grounded in society at large rather than the factory:

…The center of gravity of capitalist production no longer resides in
the factory but has shifted outside its walls. Society has become a
factory, or rather, capitalist production has spread such that the labor
power of the entire society tends to be subordinated to capitalist
control. Capital increasingly exploits the entire range of our
productive capacities, our bodies and our minds, our capacities for
communication, our intelligence and creativity, our affective relations
with each other, and more. Life itself has been put to work.

With this shift the primary engagement between capitalist and worker
also changes. No longer is the typical scene of exploitation the
capitalist overseeing the factory, directing and disciplining the worker
in order to generate a profit. Today the capitalist is farther removed
from the scene, and workers generate wealth more autonomously. The
capitalist accumulates wealth primarily through rent, not profit — this
rent most often takes a financial form and is guaranteed through
financial instruments. This is where debt enters the picture, as a means
to maintain and control the relationship of production and exploitation.
Exploitation today is based primarily not on (equal or unequal) exchange
but on debt, that is, on the fact that the 99 percent of the population
is subject — owes work, owes money, owes obedience — to the 1

First, production is now realized at both the local and global levels in
the frame of the common: labor power has become common, life has been
put to work, capitalist development in the form of financialization
centrally involves exploitation of the common, and so forth. Second,
capitalist development is plagued by an irresolvable economic, social,
and political crisis. This crisis can be explained in part, at least, by
the fact that whereas productive forces are becoming increasingly
common, relations of production and property continue to be defined by
individualistic and privatistic rules and norms, which are unable to
grasp the new productive reality and are completely external to the new
common sources of value.

The “dominant forms of subjectivity” that emerge in this crisis period
of late capitalism include “four primary subjective figures—the
indebted, the mediatized, the securitized, and the represented — all of
which are impoverished and their powers for social action are masked or

The hegemony of finance and the banks has produced the indebted.
Control over information and communication networks has produced the
. The security regime and the general state of exception have
constructed a figure prey to fear and yearning for protection — the
. And the corruption of democracy has formed a strange,
politicized figure — the represented. These subjective figures
constitute the social terrain on which — and against which — movements
of resistance and rebellion must act.

The previous state of isolation in these individual prisons is replaced
by a recomposition. And the new sense of subjectivity is expressed by a
refusal and inversion of all the various forms of control. Refusal of
debt is an enormous threat to the system, obviously,
through such means as organized debt strikes in the developed world,
repudiations of foreign debt by developing countries, etc.

The refusal and inversion of mediatization comes from recuperating media
and using social media as a means of coordinating protest, asserting
mastery over it, turning it into “tools for our collective

Refusal of securitization comes from recognizing that power is a
relationship which requires the cooperation of the ruled. We cease to be
securitized by “obeying when the forces of power [are] watching and
subverting that power in hidden spaces.” James Scott’s
treatment of Zomian populations in The Art of Not Being Governed, and
their escape by rendering themselves illegible, is relevant here. And
ultimately people often defeat power simply by refusing to be afraid any
more, as when Mubarak was brought down by the refusal of the Tahrir
Square protestors. Consider case studies by civil
resistance scholars of (for example) the Shah’s regime, where every
police repression of a crowd resulted in even more people showing up for
the funerals, and more the next time after that was repressed, and so
on, until finally the Shah’s inner circle melted away and the palace
guards defected and he had to evacuate.

Finally, refusal of representation entails exodus from participation in
the political process, and acting as the constituent power for a new

In this model, revolutionary subjectivity emerges from the shared sense
of indebtedness and other forms of subordination and control that
encompass our relationships in society at large, as opposed to Marx’s
idea of subjectivity emerging among workers in a factory from their
shared experience of participating in production. The subjectivity is
that of the multitude in the social factory, versus that of the
proletariat in an industrial factory.

The identity of the new subject who emerges from the social factory at
large is that of the commoner.

The commoner is… an ordinary person who accomplishes an extraordinary
task: opening private property to the access and enjoyment of all;
transforming public property controlled by state authority into the
common; and in each case discovering mechanisms to manage, develop, and
sustain common wealth through democratic participation. The task of the
commoner, then, is not only to provide access to the fields and rivers
so that the poor can feed themselves, but also to create a means for the
free exchange of ideas, images, codes, music, and information. We have
already seen some of the prerequisites of accomplishing these tasks: the
ability to create social bonds with each other, the power of
singularities to communicate through differences, the real security of
the fearless, and the capacity for democratic political action. The
commoner is a constituent participant, the subjectivity that is
foundational and necessary for constituting a democratic society based
on open sharing of the common.

The action of “commoning” must be oriented not only toward the access to
and self-management of shared wealth but also the construction of forms
of political organization.

IV. The Abandonment of Workerism in Praxis

In this last section, we shift our focus to actual resistance movements
engaged in direct struggle. The post-1994 cycle of movements has
continued the move away from workerism that began with the New Left.

The EZLN, whose 1994 uprising in Chiapas kicked off the massive wave of
horizontalist movements that persists to this day, focuses on “civil
society” rather than “class.”

The EZLN do not use the concept of “class” or “class struggle” in their
discourse, in spite of the fact that Marxist theory has clearly played
an important part in their formation. They have preferred instead to
develop a new language, to speak of the struggle of truth and
dignity…. In looking for support, or in forming links with other
struggles, they have appealed not to the working class or the
proletariat but to “civil society.” By “civil society” they seem to mean
“society in struggle” in the broadest sense: all those groups and
initiatives engaged in latent or overt struggles to assert some sort of
control over their future, without aspiring to hold government

In other words, the “revolutionary subject” is all oppressed groups,
united in their struggle against all forms of domination. “Revolution
can only be thought of in this scheme as the cumulative uniting of
dignities, the snowballing of struggles, the refusal of more and more
people to subordinate their humanity to the degradation of

Holloway’s objection to a primary focus on the working class is related
to his autonomist perspective, in which the struggle against capitalism
is an open-ended struggle to contest its imposition of commodifed labor,
and to prevent its reimposition on a daily basis. The concept of a
working class as the primary agent of struggle presupposes the very
thing that autonomists object to: the idea of capitalism as a closed
system, currently set in place, and the commodification of labor as a
done deal.

In this approach, any definition of the working class is based on its
subordination to capital…. Capitalism, in this approach, is understood
as a world of predefined social relations that are firmly fixed or
fetishized. Thus, working-class struggle is understood as starting from
the pre-constituted subordination of labour to capital.

But autonomism sees the struggle against capitalism as just the
opposite: a struggle, across the whole of society (not just in the
workplace), to contest such subordination in the first place.

…[T]he conflict does not take place after subordination has been
established, after the fetishised forms of social relations have been
constituted: rather it is a conflict about the subordination of social
practice, about the fetishization of social relations. The conflict is
between subordination and insubordination…. Class struggle does not
take place within the constituted forms of capitalist social relations:
rather the constitution of these forms is itself class struggle. This
leads to a much richer concept of class struggle in which the whole of
social practice is at issue.

Because the expansionary logic of capitalism requires commodifying ever
larger spheres of life, subjecting new areas to the cash nexus,
privatizing and enclosing more areas of common life, imposing neoliberal
models of austerity in new venues, it follows that every area of life —
not just the workplace — is a site of struggle against

And in a very real sense the struggle is not so much by labor as against
labor, in the sense of abstract labor (the commodification of our

It becomes clear that we cannot think of class struggle as labour
against capital because labour is on the same side of capital, labour
produces capital. The struggle is not that of labour against capital but
of doing (or living) against labour and therefore against

Drawing on the experience of the 2011 protests and their use of social
media, Negri and Hardt argue for the central role of communications
technology in the emergence of the commoner as subject.

The constituent power of the common is… closely interwoven with the
themes of constituent power — adopting new technologies (cellular
technologies, Twitter, Facebook, and more generally the Internet) as
vehicles of experimentation with democratic and multitudinary

The centrality of knowledge and knowledge workers to the current model
of capitalism, and the requirements that entails, threaten to undermine

We live in a society in which capital functions increasingly by
exploiting the production and expression of knowledge, a society of
cognitive capitalism. Knowledge constitutes ever more the heart of
social relations, in terms of both capitalist control and the resistance
of living labor. It is thus no coincidence that, in the current cycle of
struggles, a large part of the activists are students, intellectual
workers, and those working in urban service jobs — what some call the
cognitive precariat…. The proliferation of struggles and their
performative character are grounded in the new nature of labor power. As
the centrality of cognitive labor becomes hegemonic, it permeates and is
crystallized in these forms of struggle. In the passage of these
movements from protest to constituent process, then, the demand for the
publicity and transparency becomes central.

Any effort to discipline or repress the curiosity, vitality, or desire
for knowledge of cognitive workers reduces their productivity. These
qualities are essential to contemporary economic production, but they
also open new contradictions regarding the exercise of power and the
legitimacy of representation. In fact, curiosity, vitality, and desire
for knowledge demand that the opacity and secrecy of power be

Things like Chelsea Manning’s document dump — and Snowden’s, which
happened after Negri’s and Hardt’s time of writing in Declaration
— display the problematic character of knowledge work for capital
and the state. “If the state is not willing to initiate a process of
Glasnost, opening its secret vaults and making transparent its
operations, then these militants will help it do so

Subjectivity is produced by such forms of activism — heavily mediated by
the new communications technologies — as “discussing, learning and
teaching, studying and communicating, participating in

The declining role of the traditional industrial proletariat as
revolutionary subject, and of control of the workplace, in
postcapitalist transition is closely related to the shift from ruptural
to interstitial transitional models. As Cleaver observes:

…Resources are limited, so Marxists have always looked for those
sectors of the working class that seem to have the most leverage or seem
to be the most dynamic and are those who are most likely to be on the
foreground of the class struggle. It is easy to understand why they have
done it; I just don’t think we can afford to have that attitude anymore.
We need to recognize that capital is global. Struggles are happening all
over the place, and our problem is connecting them up in such a way that
makes them all stronger…. Our problem, our big problem, is to
understand concrete struggles taking place all over, but on the other
hand we need to understand the connections….

What we see by looking historically are these cycles of struggle. What
hasn’t been studied enough is the formation of movements and how they
gel and come together. You have these molecular struggles going on all
the time and all over the place, but under what circumstances do they
begin to link up? How does that linkage catalyze? It is like a formation
of crystal from a liquid.

It makes no sense to look for the revolutionary subject, in
other words, because we’re not looking for a vanguard to lead a
revolutionary struggle. We’re looking for those engaged in building the
future society, in the interstices of capitalism, and people are engaged
in that effort in every sector of society. The “revolutionary subject”
is the entire future society in the making, here and now, and the task
is to keep building it.

Murray Bookchin argued, likewise, that we are engaged in constituting a
“self” — a subject — through the process of building the new society.

There can be no separation of the revolutionary process from the
revolutionary goal. A society based on self-administration must be
achieved by means of self-administration.
This implies the forging of a
self… and a mode of administration which the self can possess. If we
define “power” as the power of man over man, power can only be destroyed
by the very process in which man acquires power over his own life and in
which he not only “discovers” himself but, more meaningfully, formulates
his selfhood in all its social dimensions.

Freedom, so conceived, cannot be “delivered” to the individual as the
“end product” of a “revolution.”… The assembly and community cannot be
legislated or decreed into existence. To be sure, a revolutionary group
can purposively and consciously seek to promote the creation of these
forms; but if assembly and community are not allowed to emerge
organically, if their growth is not instigated, developed and matured by
the social processes at work, they will not be really popular forms.
Assembly and community must arise from within the revolutionary process
itself; indeed, the revolutionary process must be the formation of
assembly and community, and with it, the destruction of power….
[Assembly and community] must be created as modes of struggle
against the existing society, not as theoretical or programmatic

It is hardly possible to stress this point strongly enough. The future
assemblies of people in the block, the neighborhood or the district —
the revolutionary sections to come — will stand on a higher social level
than all the present-day committees, syndicates, parties and clubs
adorned by the most resounding “revolutionary” titles. They will be the
living nuclei of Utopia in the decomposing body of bourgeois

[Last edited September 25, 2020]

Chapter Five: Evolutionary Transition Models

Introduction and Note on Terminology

Although I use “gradualism” and “continuity” for lack of other
sufficiently concise terms, they are probably somewhat misleading if
taken without explanation. Non-capitalist and commons-based alternatives
may grow in the interstices of capitalism, and increase in size relative
to the system as a whole, and capitalism may become less extractive over
time. Some government and corporate organizations may survive through
the transition and into some indefinite period of the successor system,
although their character will change along with their relationships to
the surrounding society and the core logic around which it is organized.

That does not mean that the transition will be gradual and continuous in
the sense that there are no abrupt changes or discontinuities. In fact
the tipping point between systems may be quite dramatic. But the tipping
point will be the result of cumulative, less dramatic changes which have
previously occurred within the old system. The systemic tipping point,
as Derk Loorbach (director of the Dutch Research Institute for
Transitions at Erasmus University of Rotterdam) argues, will be the
culmination of long-term processes which have occurred over decades.

Systems have a dynamic equilibrium, in which many small and gradual
changes occur. There are dominant values ​​and structures that give a
lot of stability, it is something that cannot be changed easily. Yet, at
some point, the system itself gets under pressure to change, and the
system itself resists against these changes. This means that the
pressure becomes so high that at a certain moment the whole system
transitions to a different phase, a completely new kind of equilibrium.
This transition process is not gradual. A slow change is followed by a
chaotic period of severe changes when different processes reinforce each
other, until slow adjustments finally occur in a new stable phase….

…It is not possible to predict when and how transitions take place, to
know exactly which crisis triggers or accelerates them, but we do know
that it is inevitable that there are tipping points on which
alternatives break through….

In the early stages of transitions, it is mainly particularly
alternative people who don’t eat meat, or who work with social economy
or install solar panels. But as the system is getting more in crisis,
more people who are part of the system start to think about the change,
as do business people or people in policy. When these two groups can be
connected — the alternatives and the people in the system willing to
change —new combinations will emerge.

It’s comparable to a phase transition between states of matter. A
solution may gradually become super-saturated beyond the crystallization
point, and yet remain entirely liquid until a sudden jar triggers the
actual crystallization. At that point the transition from liquid to
solid will be almost instantaneous and quite dramatic.

The primary difference between the “gradualist” transition model we
consider in this chapter, and the ruptural models of the Marxists and
others on the revolutionary Left, is one of emphasis. Marx saw
revolution as the culmination of a long process of interstitial
development by which the preconditions of communism were created within
the capitalist system. But for Marx, the actual institutions of the
successor society could not function under the control of workers, or
otherwise function as parts of a coherent post-capitalist system, until
the commanding heights of the state and monopoly capital had been seized
through some form of political action.

We, on the other hand, see a fully functioning post-capitalist system
developing here and now, as more and more cooperative or commons-based
institutions arise and coalesce into a whole. If there is violence
involved in the actual tipping point, it will not be because a seizure
of state power is necessary for us to fully construct post-capitalist
society. It will be because the forces of capital and the state attempt
to thwart the construction in which we are engaged. Ideally, we will
either achieve sufficient superiority in the correlation of forces with
capitalism to manage a peaceful transition and persuade the commanding
forces of the old system to accept a negotiated loss of power, or we
will have sufficient superiority to defeat their rear guard action with
minimal violence. But in either case, it is preferable that it be left
to them to initiate violence and that their defeat serve to ratify the
systemic transition.

All these things should be borne in mind as we use “gradual” or
“gradualism,” in the rest of this chapter, as terms of convenience.

I. Comparison to Previous Systemic Transitions

Insofar as rentier capitalism and state/corporate hierarchies, and
networks and commons, respectively, are the characteristic forms of
organization of two successive social systems, the process of transition
— like the previous transitions from the Western Roman Empire to
feudalism, and from feudalism to capitalism — itself becomes a subject
for study.

Along with the shifts we have previously examined — from mass-based
organization to horizontalism, etc. — there has been a corresponding
shift from the Old Left focus on abrupt breaks to new movements’
emphasis of gradualism and continuity.

A common theme among those who envision a gradual transition to
postcapitalism is the parallel with the earlier transition from
feudalism to capitalism, and before that with the rise of feudalism
after the fall of Rome. And as with those previous transitions, they see
the primary indications of the form to be taken by the successor society
as the prefigurative institutions being built “within the shell of the

James Livingston, for example, explicitly draws on previous transitions
as models for the hierarchy-network transition, in preference to the Old
Left’s preference for transitional models that are abrupt,
insurrectionary, and equated largely to seizure of the state and/or the
means of production (like the French and Russian revolutions). The
transition to post-capitalism could easily be a decades-long, relatively
gradual process resembling the decay of the Western Roman Empire and of
feudalism. He writes:

What happens when we stop looking for socialism in all the wrong places?

Start here. When we think about the transition from feudalism to
capitalism, we take the long view — we scan the four centuries from 1400
to 1800, looking for signs of fundamental but incremental change. To be
sure, we assume that the great bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth,
eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were both symptoms and causes of
this transition…. Still, we know these early modern movements can’t be
compared to the communist parties that created state socialism in
twentieth-century Russia, China, and Cuba, because in these more recent
instances, self-conscious revolutionaries organized workers and peasants
to overthrow capitalism and create socialism….

In short, capitalism was the unintended consequence of bourgeois
revolutions, whereas socialism has been the avowed purpose, or at least
a crucial component, of every revolution since 1911….

….We don’t measure the transition from feudalism to capitalism only by
assessing the social origins and political-economic effects of bourgeois
revolutions — we’d have to be daft to do so. Instead we ask when, how,
where, and why social relations were transformed, over many years, so
that a new mode of production and new modes of consciousness, emerged to
challenge (if not supplant) the old. Or rather…, we ask when
capitalism became the hegemonic mode in a mongrel social formation that
contained fragments of a residual feudalism and harbingers of a
precocious socialism. We don’t think that capitalism was created
overnight by revolutionary parties….

Why, then, would we look for evidence of socialism only where a state
seized by radicals of the Left inaugurates a dictatorship of the
proletariat? Or, to lower the rhetorical volume and evidentiary stakes,
why would we expect to find socialism only where avowed socialists or
labor parties contend for state power? We should instead assume that
socialism, like capitalism, is a cross-class cultural construction, to
which even the bourgeoisie has already made significant contributions —
just as the proletariat has long made significant contributions to the
cross-class construction we know as capitalism. What

Paul Mason, in Postcapitalism, also frames post-capitalism as
something emerging primarily through an evolutionary process similar to
the emergence of the feudal from the classical political economy and the
capitalist from the feudal, rather than on the revolutionary models of
the twentieth century.

Capitalism… will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will
be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first,
almost unseen within the old system, but which breaks through, reshaping
the economy around new values, behaviours and norms. As with feudalism
500 years ago, capitalism’s demise will be accelerated by external
shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being. And it
has started.

The socialists of the early twentieth century were absolutely convinced
that nothing preliminary was possible within the old system. ‘The
socialist system,’ Preobrazhensky once insisted categorically, ‘cannot
be built up molecularly within the world of capitalism.’

The most courageous thing an adaptive left could do is to abandon that
conviction. It is entirely possible to build the elements of the new
system molecularly within the old. In the cooperatives, the credit
unions, the peer-networks, the unmanaged enterprises and the parallel,
subcultural economies, these elements already exist.

Mason sees the new social forms as a new system arising “within the
shell of the old,” that will first build local counter-institutions
within the interstices of capitalism, coalesce and finally supplant it.

Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole
swathes of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.
Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces
have proliferated, and often as a direct result of the shattering of old
structures after the 2008 crisis.

New forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new legal contracts: a
whole business subculture has emerged over the past ten years, which the
media has dubbed the ‘sharing economy’. Buzz-terms such as the ‘commons’
and ‘peer-production’ are thrown around, but few have bothered to ask
what this means for capitalism itself.

He argues that the technologies and institutions of post-capitalism are
unleashing productive forces that cannot be contained within the
productive relations of capitalism, and therefore must eventually “burst
out of their capitalist integument” and become the basis for a
fundamentally new system.

…[T]he technologies we’ve created are not compatible with capitalism —
not in its present form and maybe not in any form. Once capitalism can
no longer adapt to technological change, postcapitalism becomes
necessary. When behaviours and organizations adapted to exploiting
technological change appear spontaneously, postcapitalism becomes

Today, the main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the
possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of
monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over
power and information. That is, everything is pervaded by a fight
between network and hierarchy.

First, information technology has reduced the need for work, blurred the
edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between
work and wages.

Second, information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form
prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while
information is abundant. The system’s defense mechanism is to form
monopolies on a scale not seen in the past 200 years—yet these cannot

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production:
goods, services and organizations that are appearing that no longer
respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial

In the meantime, he sees capitalism attempting to prolong its own life
by incorporating the new technologies and social relationships into a
corporate institutional structure, and enclosing them as a source of

Once you can copy and paste something, it can be reproduced for free. It
has, in economics-speak, a ‘zero marginal cost’.

Info-capitalists have a solution to this: make it legally impossible to
copy certain kinds of information….

With info-capitalism, a monopoly is not just some clever tactic to
maximize profit. It is the only way an industry can run….

…Only intellectual property law and a small piece of code in the
iTunes track prevent everybody on earth from owning every piece of music
ever made. Apple’s mission statement, properly expressed, is to prevent
the abundance of music.

If the seeds of the successor society already exist within the
interstices of capitalism, as they did in the decaying classical and
feudal orders, there is another side to the equation. The new system may
be already gestating within the shell of the old, but for it to emerge
as a full-blown successor system the old capitalist system must in the
meantime succumb to its terminal crises to make way for it. Just as the
seeds of the new system within the dying body of capitalism parallel the
prefigurative institutions of late antiquity and feudalism, capitalism
is coming up against limits to its further growth that parallel similar
limits reached by previous systems.

Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer
Alternatives compares the systemic crisis of capitalism to those of its
predecessors as crises of extensive development, resulting in
replacement by systems that are better at intensive development.
Commons-based peer production is a post-capitalist mode of production
that will succeed capitalism, growing out of it in a manner analogous to
how the manorial economy emerged from the collapse of the slave economy
of classical antiquity and capitalism emerged from late feudalism. And
like the previous transitions, peer-production will evolve as a solution
to the crisis tendencies of late capitalism when the latter reaches its
limits. In every case the phase transition follows the same pattern: “1)
systemic crisis ; 2) exodus 3) mutual reconfiguration of the classes.”

In the Roman Empire, the low productivity of slaves meant expansion was
possible only through spatial conquest. In the transition to feudalism,
the Empire from the third century on ceased to expand because the cost
of expansion exceeded its benefits. As a result, it was unable to pursue
a further course of extensive development based on the expansion of
slave labor because the supply of slaves dried up, as did the tax base
derived from new tributaries. Slaves themselves ran away, as well as
being offered their freedom by Germanic tribes in return for causing the
surrender of their cities.

The successor system solved the problem with more intensive use of
existing resources: “a reorientation of some slave owners, who shift to
the system of coloni, i.e. serfs. I.e. slaves are partially freed, can
have families, can produce from themselves and have villages, giving the
surplus to the new domain holders.” The process took centuries to
complete, with the consolidation of the feudal system occurring only in
the tenth century.

The transition now underway is from capitalism to commons-based peer

Again, we have a system faced with a crisis of extensive globalization,
where nature itself has become the ultimate limit….

What we have then is an exodus, which takes multiple forms: precarity
and flight from the salaried conditions; disenchantment with the
salaried condition and turn towards passionate production. The formation
of communities and commons are shared knowledge, code and design which
show themselves to be a superior mode of social and economic

The exodus into peer production creates a mutual reconfiguration of the
classes. A section of capital becomes netarchical and ‘empowers and
enables peer production’, while attempting to extract value from it, but
thereby also building the new infrastructures of cooperation.

This process will take time but there is one crucial difference: the
biosphere will not allow centuries of transition. So the maturation of
the new configuration will have to consolidate faster and the political
revolutions come earlier.

Late capitalism, according to Bauwens and Franco Iacomella, is beset by
systemic crises resulting from two main structural irrationalities: an
imperative of permanent growth based on artificially cheap material
resources, and economic rents based on the artificial scarcity of
information goods. So the system simultaneously outstrips the
availability of subsidized material inputs, while hindering the sharing
of innovations and discouraging cooperation.

These structural contradictions have always made for reduced efficiency
and irrationality. But in recent decades they have resulted in
increasingly chronic crisis tendencies, which amount to a terminal
crisis of capitalism as a system. Both artificial abundance and
artificial scarcity have been integral to capitalism since its
beginnings five centuries or so ago, and absolutely essential for the
extraction of profit. But capitalism is becoming increasingly dependent
on both artificial abundance and artificial scarcity for its survival at
the very same time that the state’s ability to provide them is reaching
its limits and going into decline. Hence a crisis of sustainability.

Capitalism has pursued a model of growth based on the extensive addition
of artificially cheap inputs. This has been possible either because the
colonial conquest of the world outside Europe has given the extractive
industries privileged access to mineral deposits, fossil fuels and other
natural resources, or because capitalist states have socialized the cost
of providing important material inputs to the corporate economy like
transportation and communications infrastructure and the reproduction of
trained labor-power.

Western states have engaged in constant wars, not only directly
intervening with military force and maintaining military and naval
forces all over the world, but backing death squads and terrorist
dictators like Suharto, Mobutu and Pinochet, to guarantee continued
global corporate control of local land and natural resources. The main
role of the US Navy is to keep the major sea lanes open at general
taxpayer expense to subsidize the transportation of oil and other looted
natural resources from the Global South, and to provide secure shipping
lanes for container ships hauling offshored production back to the
shelves of Walmart.

The problem is that when a particular factor input is subsidized and
artificially cheap, a business will consume increasing amounts of it as
it substitutes it for other factors. And at the same time, capitalism
has been beset by a long-term tendency, since the depressions of the
late 19th century, towards crises of overinvestment and excess capacity,
demand shortfalls and declining organic rates of profit.

This means that an ever growing amount of state subsidies, and ever
larger inputs of subsidized material inputs, are necessary just to keep
the corporate economy running artificially in the black. In the words of
James O’Connor, in Fiscal Crisis of the State, the state must
subsidize a perpetually increasing share of the operating costs of
capital, or utilize an ever growing share of otherwise idle productive
capacity and investment capital, to keep the economy out of depression.

The result is two forms of input crisis. First the fiscal crisis of the
state, as the state must run increasingly large deficits, and incur
increasingly large debt, in order to meet the constantly increasing
demands for subsidized education, transportation infrastructure and
foreign imperial wars. Of course the growing deficits are also necessary
in their own right, for stimulating aggregate demand and countering the
chronic crisis of excess capacity. And the growing debt, which is sold
to the rentier classes, soaks up trillions in surplus investment capital
that would otherwise lack a profitable outlet.

Second, Peak Resource crises like Peak Oil result when capitalism’s
requirement for endless extensive growth encounters the finitude of
natural resources.

Capitalism — like every other class society in history — has likewise
depended since the beginning on artificial scarcities. Such scarcities
include all forms of artificial property rights that erect barriers
between labor and natural productive opportunities, so that producers
can be forced to work harder than necessary in order support privileged
classes in addition to themselves. Capitalism inherited the artificial
property rights in land of earlier systems of exploitation, by which
vacant and unimproved land is engrossed and held out of use on a
continuing basis, such engrossed land is made available to cultivators
only on condition of paying tribute to the engrosser, or a landed
oligarchy is superimposed on existing cultivators; the Whig landed
oligarchy were agrarian capitalists who inherited the concentrated land
holdings that emerged from the enclosures of bastard feudalism. Other
forms of artificial scarcity are regulatory entry barriers that impose
unnecessary capital outlays for undertaking production or limit the
number of producers, regulations that impose artificial floors under the
cost of subsistence, restraints on competition between producers that
facilitate administered pricing, and restraints on competition in the
issuance of credit and currency that enable those engaged in that
function to charge usurious prices for it. Perhaps the most important
form of artificial scarcity today is so-called “intellectual property,”
which is a legal monopoly on the right to perform certain tasks or use
certain knowledge, rather than engrossment of the means of production

Artificial scarcity, like artificial abundance, is becoming increasingly
unsustainable. Copyright is rapidly becoming unenforceable, as the
proprietary content industries are learning to their dismay. And the
implosion of necessary capital outlays for manufacturing and of the
feasible scale for micro-manufacturing, coupled with the ease of sharing
digital CAD/CAM files, is raising the transaction costs of enforcing
industrial patents to unsustainable levels. The transaction costs of
patent enforcement were relatively low when a particular manufactured
good was produced in only a few basic models by a handful of industrial
corporations, and marketed through a handful of retail chains; when
proprietary designs and all sorts of unauthorized knockoffs and
modifications can be digitally distributed and produced for local
consumption in tens of thousands of neighborhood garage factories,
enforcement becomes a nightmare.

Intensive growing techniques like Permaculture are far more efficient in
terms of output per acre than factory-farming, thus reducing the
necessity and value of engrossed land for people to feed themselves. And
the explosion of vernacular building technologies, coupled with the
fiscal exhaustion of states that enforce zoning regulations and building
codes and the like, means that the imposition of artificial costs of
comfortable subsistence is likewise becoming unsustainable.

“Cognitive capitalism” is increasingly dependent on p2p productive
relations and communications infrastructures, and is attempting to
incorporate them into its old corporate framework as a way of injecting
life into the dying system. But it is a force that cannot be contained
within the institutional framework of the old society, and can only come
into its full development as the basis for a successor society.

Companies have used these technologies to integrate their processes with
those of partners, suppliers, consumers, and each other, using a
combination of intranets, extranets, and the public internet, and it has
become the absolutely essential tool for international communication and
business, and to enable the cooperative, internationally coordinated
projects carried out by teams…. Politics, culture, and science are
equally changed by distributed practices enabled by the new
technological infrastructure.

So the general conclusion of all the above has to be the essentially
cooperative nature of production, the fact that companies are drawing on
this vast reservoir of a ‘commons of general intellectuality’, without
which they could not function. That innovation is diffused throughout
the social body.

…Just as post- or late feudal society and its absolutist kings needed
the bourgeoisie, late capitalist society cannot survive without
knowledge workers and their P2P practices. It can be argued that the
adoption of P2P processes is in fact essential for competitiveness: a
strong foundation of P2P technologies, the use of free or open source
software, processes for collective intelligence building, free and fluid
cooperation, are now all necessary facets of the contemporary

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt explicitly describe postcapitalist
society as growing out of the surplus resulting from the fact that the
multitude creates value faster than it can be appropriated by capital.
The common is a positive externality created by the multitude, which
capital parasitizes on. But more importantly, the multitude creates this
social capital faster than capital can enclose it, and thus builds a new
society in part outside the boundaries of capital. This
surplus produced by the common, which cannot be fully expropriated by
capital, “is the basis on which antagonism is transformed into

As in previous transitions, the gravedigger mode of production and the
gravedigger class which are driving the old system to crisis are also
the core of the successor system which is emerging from it. Bauwens sees
commons-based peer production as the core logic of the post-capitalist
successor society.

A new class of knowledge workers, in its broad sense already the
majority of the working population in the West, and poised to be in the
same situation elsewhere in a few decades, are creating new practices
and tools that enable them to do what they need to do, i.e. knowledge
exchange. As they create these new tools, bringing into being a new
format of social exchange, they enable new types of subjectivation,
which in turn not only changes themselves, but the world around them.
When Marx wrote his Manifesto, there were only 100,000 industrial
workers, yet he saw that this new social model was the essence of the
new society being born. Similarly, even if today only a few million
knowledge workers consciously practice P2P, one can see the birth of a
new model of a much larger social consequence. This new model is
inherently more productive in creating the new immaterial use value,
just as the merchants and capitalists were more effective in the
material economy.

This is fundamentally different from the core logic of capitalism. It
will be steady-state and sustainable, with true cost pricing, in its use
of physical resources, and it will permit the free replication, sharing
and use of information without limit.

The technologies and other developments we surveyed in Chapter Two —
cheap, ephemeral production technologies and networked communications
technologies that are capable of coordination without high
administrative overhead — are the material basis for the more intensive
economic model of capitalism’s successor. And as Douglas Rushkoff
suggested, its logic is fundamentally at war with capitalism’s
requirement for extensive growth. Although he focused on the role of
communications technology, the same phenomenon is occurring in the realm
of physical production thanks to the imploding cost of
micro-manufacturing tools.

The fact is, most Internet businesses don’t
require venture capital. The beauty of these technologies is that they
decentralize value creation. Anyone with a PC and bandwidth can program
the next Twitter or Facebook plug-in, the next iPhone app, or even the
next social network. While a few thousand dollars might be nice, the
hundreds of millions that venture capitalists want to–need to–invest,
simply aren’t required….

The banking crisis began with the dot.com industry, because here was a
business sector that did not require massive investments of capital in
order to grow…. What’s a bank to do when its money is no longer needed?
Especially when contraction is not an option?

So they fail, the tax base decreases, companies based more on their debt
structures than their production fail along with them, and we get an
economic crisis. Yes, the Internet did all this.

The post-capitalist social formation will be one in which commons
governance, horizontal networks and p2p organization will replace the
corporate-state nexus as the core, with markets and administration
persisting in reduced, peripheral form and characterized by their
relationship to networks.

Commons-based peer production, as an alternative to both the capitalist
corporation and the state, enables

the direct social production of use value, through new life practices
that are largely outside the control of capital, and with means of
production which have been socialized to a very significant degree.
These new processes are post-capitalist rather than capitalist, in the
sense that they no longer need any specific role of capital for their

Although commons-based peer production first appeared in the immaterial
sphere, new technological possibilities for the widespread ownership of
cheap, small-scale material production tools and distributed aggregation
of capital have laid the groundwork for the same mode of production to
spread rapidly into the physical realm as well.

  • P2P can arise not only in the immaterial sphere of intellectual and
    software production, but wherever there is access to distributed
    technology: spare computing cycles, distributed telecommunications
    and any kind of viral communicator meshwork.

  • P2P can arise wherever other forms of distributed fixed capital are
    available: such is the case for carpooling, which is the second most
    used mode of transportation in the U.S.

  • P2P can arise wherever the process of design may be separated from
    the process of physical production. Huge capital outlines for
    production can co-exist with a reliance on P2P processes for design
    and conception.

  • P2P can arise wherever financial capital can be distributed….

  • P2P could be expanded and sustained through the introduction of
    universal basic income.

The state and market will continue to exist, but will take on a
fundamentally different character, defined by its relation to the larger
society—with the commons as its hegemonic institution—into which it is
embedded. The markets will be non-capitalist — without the artificially
cheap material inputs or the rents from artificial scarcity — and the
state will increasingly take on the character of a networked support
platform in its relationship to self-managed, horizontal civil society

The public sector of the P2P economy is neither a corporate welfare
state at the service of a financial elite, nor a welfare state that has
a paternalistic relation to civil society, but a Partner State, which
serves civil society and takes responsibility for the metagovernance of
the three spheres. The Partner State is dedicated to supporting “the
common value creation of the civic sphere”; the “market” and the
“mission-oriented” activities of the new private sphere; and all the
public services that are necessary for the common good of all citizens….

The essential characteristic of the new system is that the commons is
the new core, and a variety of hybrid mechanisms can productively
coexist around it, including reformed market and state

Christopher Wright, working from a Marxist perspective, uses the same
gradualist transitional analogies (the transition from feudalism to
capitalism, etc.) as the thinkers surveyed above.

To salvage Marx’s intuition, and in fact to make it quite useful, it’s
necessary to tweak his formulation. Rather than some sort of “absolute”
fettering of productive forces by capitalist relations, there is a
relative fettering — relative to an emergent mode of production, a
more democratic and socialized mode, that is producing and distributing
resources more equitably and rationally than the capitalist.

A parallel (albeit an imperfect one) is the transition from feudalism to
capitalism. Feudal relations certainly obstructed economic growth, but
it wasn’t until a “competing” economy — of commercial, financial,
agrarian, and finally industrial capitalism — had made great progress in
Western Europe that the classical epoch of revolution between the
seventeenth and nineteenth centuries burst onto the scene. Relative to
, feudalism was hopelessly stagnant, and therefore, once
capitalism had reached a certain level of development, doomed.

Crucially, the bourgeoisie’s conquest of political power wasn’t possible
until capitalist economic relations had already, over centuries,
spread across much of Europe. There had to be a material foundation for
the capitalist class’s ultimate political victories: without economic
power — the accumulation of material resources through institutions they
controlled — capitalists could never have achieved political power
That is to say, much of the enormously protracted social revolution
occurred before the final “seizure of the state.”

But this shift in framing requires, in place of the abrupt or
revolutionary transition scenarios of orthodox Marxism, something like
the interstitial approach described in later chapters.

If historical materialism is right, as it surely is, the same paradigm
must apply to the transition from capitalism to socialism. The working
class can never complete its conquest of the state until it commands
considerable economic power — not only the power to go on strike and
shut down the economy but actual command over resources, resources
sufficient to compete with the ruling class. The power to strike, while
an important tool, is not enough. Nor are mere numbers, however many
millions, enough, as history has shown. The working class needs its own
institutional bases from which to wage a very prolonged struggle, and
these institutions have to be directly involved in the production and
accumulation of resources. Only after some such “alternative economy,”
or socialized economy, has emerged throughout much of the world
alongside the rotting capitalist economy will the popular classes be in
a position to finally complete their takeover of states. For they will
have the resources to politically defeat the — by then — weak,
attenuated remnants of the capitalist class….

What we must do, then, is to laboriously construct new relations of
production as the old capitalist relations fall victim to their
contradictions. But how is this to be done? At this early date, it is,
admittedly, hard to imagine how it can be accomplished. Famously, it’s
easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

But two things are clear. First, a significant amount of grassroots
initiative is necessary. The long transition will not take place only on
one plane, the plane of the state; there will be a tumult of creative
energy on sub-state levels, as there was during Europe’s transition into
capitalism…. The many forms of such energy can hardly be anticipated,
but they will certainly involve practices that have come to be called
the “solidarity economy,” including the formation of cooperatives of all
types, public banks, municipal enterprises, participatory budgeting,
mutual aid networks, and so on. In a capitalist context it is
inconceivable that states will respond to crisis by dramatically
improving the circumstances of entire populations; as a result, large
numbers of people will be compelled to build new institutions to survive
and to share and accumulate resources. Again, this process, which will
occur all over the world and to some degree will be organized and
coordinated internationally, will play out over generations, not just
two or three decades.

In the long run, moreover, this solidarity economy will not prove to be
some sort of innocuous, apolitical, compatible-with-capitalism
development; it will foster anti-capitalist ways of thinking and acting,
anti-capitalist institutions, and anti-capitalist resistance. It will
facilitate the accumulation of resources among organizations committed
to cooperative, democratic, socialized production and distribution, a
rebuilding of
“,” a democratization of the state. It will amount to an entire
sphere of what has been called
“” opposed to a
still-capitalist state, a working-class base of power to complement the
power of workers and unions to strike.

This “long revolution” will be international because, as Marx
understood, “socialism in one country” is impossible. However:

What he didn’t understand was that the only way a revolution can be
international is that it happen in a similar way to the centuries-long
“bourgeois revolution” in Europe and North America, namely by sprouting
first on the local level, the municipal level, the regional level, and
expanding on that “grassroots” basis.

Wright, in contrast to a view he attributes to “the anarchists,” sees
this counter-power strategy as requiring some engagement with the state.

The second point is that, contrary to anarchism, it will be necessary to
use the state to help construct a new mode of production. Governments
are instruments of massive social power and they cannot simply be
ignored or overthrown in a general strike. However unpleasant or morally
odious it may be to participate in hierarchical structures of political
power, it has to be a part of any strategy to combat the ruling

And he is optimistic that the state will implement many of the
foundations of post-capitalism piecemeal, as non-reformist reforms that
cannot be rolled back, out of sheer strategic necessity. Just as
ordinary people turn to the solidarity economy out of necessity, in the
face of stagnation, unemployment, and retrenchment of the welfare state,
the capitalist state itself will be forced out of necessity to
incorporate elements of the solidarity economy and enlist them as
allies, because of its own hollowing out and fiscal exhaustion.

…[W]hat the retrenchment of government’s public functions is making
possible, for the first time ever, is the paradigm of revolution that I
described above when critiquing Marx’s theory. Given the state’s growing
incapacity to assuage discontent, movements of a decentralized,
semi-interstitial, regional, democratic character are emerging to fill
the vacuum. In the long run they, or the institutions they spawn, will
probably take over many of the functions of the national state, such as
the provision of social welfare. Even more importantly, they will enable
the construction of new production relations in the shell of a corporate
capitalist economy that cannot provide billions of people with a

The process bears considerable resemblance to that by which the Roman
state, similarly exhausted, out of necessity delegated an increasing
share of its security functions to the very Germanic tribes whose
incursions it had been fighting.

One way the future may play out is that such reforms, eventually
supported by much of the elite, continue to spread for many decades as
social instability increases. They build up a constituency that acquires
a vested interest in their maintenance and expansion. Since national
governments and bureaucracies are simultaneously becoming ever more
dysfunctional and inadequate to the task of ensuring social order, the
“reforms” typically amount to a partial ceding of powers to the
regional, local, and international scales. Military and police
repression of far-left movements continues in many places, and such
movements or parties are rarely permitted to capture national
governments (because they’re too important), but on less visible scales,
such as the local and regional, “the people” do have more and more say
in governance — because the elite finds it necessary to make some
concessions, and it’s less dangerous to do so on lower levels of
governance than on higher levels.

And the state will do these things despite the appeal of — and
occasional resort to, from place to place — fascism and repression,
because fascism is not a sustainable long-term strategy.

Activists and organizations will pressure the state at all levels, from
municipal to national, to increase funding for the solidarity economy.
In fact, they already are, and have had success in many countries and
municipalities, including in the U.S. The election of more socialists to
office will encourage these trends and ensure greater successes.
Pressure will also build to fund larger worker cooperatives, to convert
corporations to worker-owned businesses, and to nationalize sectors of
the economy. And sooner or later, many states will start to give in.

Why? One possible state response to crisis, after all, is fascism. And
fascism of some form or other is indeed being pursued by many countries
right now, from Brazil to Hungary to India to the U.S. But there’s a
problem with fascism: by its murderous and ultra-nationalistic nature,
it can be neither permanent nor continuously enforced worldwide. Even
just in the United States, the governmental structure is too vast and
federated, there are too many thousands of relatively independent
political jurisdictions, for a fascist regime to be consolidated in
every region of the country. Fascism is only a temporary and partial
solution for the ruling class. It doesn’t last.

Instead, it will attempt to incorporate as allies the nascent
institutions of the post-capitalist society and economy, just as the
monarchs and landed classes did with the rising bourgeoisie (and the
late Western Roman Empire did with the Germanic tribes).

The other solution, which doubtless will always be accompanied by
repression, is to grant concessions to the masses. Here, it’s necessary
to observe that the state isn’t monolithically an instrument of capital.
While capital dominates it, it is a terrain of struggle,
“contestations,” “negotiations,” of different groups — classes, class
subgroups, interest groups, even individual entities — advocating for
their interests. Marxists from Engels, Kautsky, and Lenin to Miliband
and Poulantzas to more recent writers have felled forests writing about
the nature of the capitalist state, but for the purposes of
revolutionary strategy all you need is some
…. It is possible for popular movements to exert such
pressure on the state that they slowly change its character, thereby
helping to change the character of capitalist society.

In particular, popular organizations and activists can take advantage of
splits within the ruling class to push agendas that benefit the
populace. The political scientist Thomas Ferguson, among others,
how the New
Deal, including the epoch-making Wagner Act and Social Security Act, was
made possible by just such divisions in the ranks of business. On a
grander scale, Western Europe’s long transition from feudalism to
capitalism was accompanied by divisions within the ruling class, between
more forward-thinking and more hidebound elements. (As is well known, a
number of landed aristocrats and clergymen even supported the French
Revolution, at least in its early phases.) Marx was therefore wrong to
imply that it’s the working class vs. the capitalist class,
. This totally Manichean thinking suggested that the only
way to make a revolution is for the proletariat to overthrow the ruling
class in one blow, so to speak, to smash a united reactionary opposition
that, moreover, is in complete control of the state (so the state has to
be seized all at once).

On the contrary, we can expect the past to repeat itself: as crises
intensify and popular resistance escalates, liberal factions of the
ruling class will split off from the more reactionary elements in order
to grant concessions. In our epoch of growing social fragmentation,
environmental crisis, and an
, many of these concessions will have the
character not of resurrecting the centralized welfare state but of
encouraging phenomena that seem rather “interstitial” and less
challenging to capitalist power than full-fledged social democracy is.
But, however innocent it might seem to support new “decentralized”
solutions to problems of unemployment, housing, consumption, and general
economic dysfunction, in the long run, as I’ve said, these sorts of
reforms will facilitate the rise of a more democratic and socialized
political economy within the shell of the decadent capitalist one….

Much of the ruling class will of course oppose and undermine progressive
policies — especially of the more statist variety — every step of the
way, thus deepening the crisis and doing its own part to accelerate the
momentum for change. But by the time it becomes clear to even the
liberal sectors of the business class that its reforms are undermining
the long-term viability and hegemony of capitalism, it will be too late.
They won’t be able to turn back the clock: there will be too many
worker-owned businesses, too many public banks, too many
state-subsidized networks of mutual aid, altogether too many reforms to
the old type of neoliberal capitalism (reforms that will have been
granted, as always, for the sake of maintaining social order). The
slow-moving revolution will feed on itself and will prove unstoppable,
however much the more reactionary states try to clamp down, murder
dissidents, prohibit protests, and bust unions….

Just as the European absolutist state of the
sixteenth to nineteenth centuries was compelled to empower — for the
sake of accumulating wealth — the capitalist classes that created the
conditions of its demise, so the late-capitalist state will be
compelled, for the purposes of internal order, to acquiesce in the
construction of non-capitalist institutions that correct some of the
“market failures” of the capitalist mode of production. The capitalist
state will, of necessity, be a participant in its own demise. Its highly
reluctant sponsorship of new practices of production, distribution, and
social life as a whole — many of them “interstitial” at first — will be
undertaken on the belief that it’s the lesser of two evils, the greater
evil being the complete dissolution of capitalist power resulting from
the dissolution of society.

II. The Nature of Post-Capitalist Transition

Partner State. The Saint-Simonian idea of replacing legislation over
human beings with the “administration of things” has since appeared in
many iterations, starting with Proudhon’s “dissolution of the state in
society” in General Idea of the Revolution. Proudhon continued to
develop this model through his intellectual career, according to Shawn

In 1887…, more than twenty years after the death of anarchist pioneer
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Frédéric Tufferd wrote:

The most incredible confusion is that between the government and the
State. I am an anarchist, as Proudhon was, for like him I want to
abolish government, the principle of authority in the State, in order to
replace it by an responsible and controllable administration of the
public interests; but I do not want, with Bakunin, to abolish the State.
The word State comes from stare, to hold, to persist; the State is thus
the organized collectivity. Just as the commune is the local
collectivity, the State is the national collectivity which has lasted,
lasts, and will last as long as the nation itself.

…Then, during the Second Empire…, Proudhon began to advance an
alternate account, in which he found that government and the State were
indeed separable, and that the non-governmental functions of the State,
though modest in comparison to those attributed to its authoritarian
forms, served vital roles in society — even when the political forms of
society approached anarchy.

It was in The Theory of
, also published in 1861, that the
citizen-State finally emerged…. He reaffirmed that the State had a
“positive reality,” manifesting itself as a “power of collectivity,”
issuing from the organized collective, rather than imposed on it from
outside, and thus possessing rights — of the sort introduced in
War an [sic] Peace — but no
authority. He asserted that in a regime of liberty it too must be ruled,
like the citizens, only by reason and by justice — because, as he put
it, “it is itself, if I may put it this way, a sort of citizen.” This
image of the citizen-State, neither master nor servant, and located “on
the same line” as the other citizens, may be the simplest
characterization possible of Proudhon’s complex and elusive ideal for
the State.

The Partner State is very much in this tradition, as John Restakis
describes it:

The idea of the Partner State proceeds directly from the principle that
civil society is the source of political legitimacy in a democracy. In
this view, the state is in the service of civil society as a vehicle to
advance and protect the common good.

Thus, the Partner State is above all an enabling state. Its primary
purpose is to maximize the capacity of civil society to create social
value and to act as the primary agent in the formation of public policy.
It is citizens, acting through civil institutions that they control,
that ultimately decide and direct the implementation of public policy.
The enabling role of the state is not confined to the promotion of
social value. It also entails the promotion of open access to the
economy. It provides space for the operation of many models of
entrepreneurship, including collective and commons-based forms of
enterprise such as cooperatives and peer-to-peer networks, and the
promotion of participatory politics.

The Partner State enlarges the scope of personal autonomy and liberty
and guarantees personal economic security while reinforcing the social
bonds that build healthy communities and a vibrant civil society.
Central to this process is the democratization of the state itself.
Ultimately, the Partner State acts primarily as an administrative
support for the coordination of policies decided upon by institutions of
civil society on the basis of cooperative, direct

The idea of the Partner State originated with Cosma Orsi, and was picked
up by Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives.
Bauwens, building on Orsi’s work, sees the Partner State as a sort of
“peer-to-peer state,” organized on stigmergic rather than democratic

First of all, these communities are not democracies. Why is that so?
Because democracy, the market, and hierarchies are all modes of
allocation of scarce resources. In hierarchy, our superiors decide; in
the market, prices decide; in a democracy, “we” decide.

But where resources are abundant, as they are with knowledge, code, and
design — which can be copied and shared at a marginal cost — they are
truly unnecessary.

So the Partner State, arguably, is not so much a “government” as a
system of governance. It need not be a state at all, in the sense of
an institution which claims the sole right to initiate force in a given
territory. It is, essentially, a nonstate social association — or
support platform — for managing the commons, extended to an entire
geographical region.

Peer production also rests on a sometimes costly infrastructure of
cooperation. There would be no Wikipedia without the funding for its
servers, no free software or open hardware without similar support
mechanisms. This is why open source communities have created a new
social institution: the for-benefit association…. [T]he new
for-benefit associations have only an active role in enabling and
empowering the community to cooperate, by provisioning its
infrastructure, not by commanding its production processes. These
associations exist for the sole purpose of ‘benefiting’ the community of
which they are the expression….

Now, here is the kicker, how would you call an institution that is
responsible for the common good of all the participants, in this case,
not the people involved in a similar project, but the inhabitants of a
territory? I would argue that this type of for-benefit institution has a
very similar function to what we commonly assign to the state….

Can we then, imagine, a new type of state? Enter the concept of a
Partner State! The Partner State… is a state form that enables and
empowers the social creation of value by its citizens. It protects the
infrastructure of cooperation that is the whole of society. The Partner
State can exist at any territorial level, as a set of institutions that
protect the common good and enable the citizens to create value. It
does, on a territorial scale, what the for-benefit institutions do on a
project-scale. While the for-benefit associations work for the commoners
as to particular projects, the Partner State works for the

Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue, similarly, that the Partner State is
part of a larger ecology commons. In a commons-based economy, an ecology
of enterprises (ideally mostly cooperative or peer-to-peer) grows up as
a value-added layer on top of information and natural resource commons.
The small-scale institutions for managing and supporting the commons —
e.g. the Mozilla Foundation, Wikimedia Foundation, etc. — are
mini-Partner States. To turn that around, the Partner State is a sort of
commons-administering foundation writ large, a meta-organization
supporting the commons and civil society.

In our vision, a commons-centric society would ideally have:

  • a productive civil society that would contribute to the commons,

  • a generative market that would create added value around the commons,

  • a partner state, which is emerging prefiguratively in some urban
    practices, such as the Bologna Regulation for the Care and
    Regeneration of the Urban Commons or some policies of the Barcelona
    En Comú citizen platform.

In this vision, the partner state would be the guarantor of civic
rights, but also of the equal contributory potential of all citizens.
Without this function, communities could have unequal access to
resources and capabilities, perpetuating inequality. In our vision, the
state form would gradually lose its separateness from civil society, by
implementing radically democratic procedures and

Another good description comes from Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie

Imagine a radically reconfigured and democratically accountable
structure. One that, while preserving the more desirable characteristics
of the Welfare State — social and public health provision and large
infrastructure management and upkeep — radically democratizes them. It
would do away with the State’s cozy symbiosis with market entities,
while deconstructing its pernicious monopolies over money creation and
exchange, and property and judicial rights. A second radical set of
measures would prohibit the structural enforcement of inequality and the
often violent repression of emancipatory alternatives. This structure
would function in much the same way as foundations do in the Open Source
software economy: providing the infrastructure for cooperation and the
creation and upkeep of commons but not directing the process of social
value creation and distribution. In other words, it would empower and
protect the practice of commoning.

This enabling metastructure — often referred to as “The Partner State” —
would also take on new functions derived from already existing
P2P/Commons practices. Among these, we would see a promotion of real,
needs-oriented entrepreneurship, bolstered by explicit recognition and
support of bottom-up productive infrastructures, such as Open Coops,
mesh wireless networks or community renewables through public-Commons
partnerships. It would allow commoners to repurpose or take over unused
or underutilised public buildings for social ends while giving legal
recognition to the act of commoning, whether through copyleft-inspired
property-law hacks or through a longer process of gradually
institutionalizing commons practices. Its grassroots democratizing ethos
would create new financing mechanisms and debt-free public money
creation, which, alongside social currencies, could fund environmentally
regenerative work and the creation of new, distributed Open-source
infrastructure. These would be supported by taxation schemes favouring
the types of labor described above, while penalizing speculation,
parasitic rents and negative social and environmental externalities. The
overall system has to be kept in check through a pervasive culture of
participatory politics — made feasible through its attendant pedagogy —
to involve a newly enfranchised citizenry in the deliberation and
real-time consultation of political and legislative issues and
budgeting. In issues of power, the Partner State shifts to being a fluid
facilitator to assist and emancipate the bottom-up counter-power that
keeps it in check.

For Christian Iaione, it is a platform that follows an open-source logic
and is organized below. And to some extent it recapitulates the
polyarchic systems of governance that predated the Westphalian
nation-state and its model of sovereignty.

For this reason, we need to re-think the organization and the culture of
institutions in a framework of open-source and circularity: we need a
State-Platform that does not want to guide the process but choses [sic]
to act from below, supporting a circuit of relationship and allowing the
above-mentioned actors [public, private, third sector, cultural
institutions such as schools and universities, single citizens and
social innovators] to become authors and actors of general interest. The
State-Platform must break the monopoly of public care of the general
interest, without withdrawing from the care of those interests which are
inescapably public and becoming a system administrator, as it happens in
the web…. We took thirty or forty years to have the social state we
inherited, which was born exactly as the contemporary collaborative
state is emerging in the co-working spaces, in enterprises, in community
cooperatives, in fab labs, in impact hubs, in cultural and creative
collectives and enterprises, in the collective management of the commons
and so on….[T]hese people are reconstructing and regenerating the
State starting from its foundations. If we look back into the history of
the Social State and of its birth, we understand that it originated in
society, in neighborhood associations, in self-managed mutual aid
societies, in the world of cooperation and in workers’ unions of first
generation. From there the first mutual aid insurances against
on-the-job injuries were generated, together with the first forms of
income support. An old fox such as Otto Von Bismarck, who had foreseen
what was happening, before being removed from power was able to build
the Social State. He did so working from above, with a top-down
approach, as he knew that hadn’t he laid the foundations of the social
state, the social state would have anyway emerged from the bottom-up
action of these ante litteram innovators, that would definitely not have
confirmed him in his role.

…[A] new form of State, a State which is plural because distributed,
because it can be found in the different worlds of society, economy and
knowledge and not anymore confined to the offices and hallways our
institutions. Thus, a program of large-scale experimentation is needed
to regenerate institutions, a program able to strengthen
administrations’ institutional capacity to manage change without
suffocating it nor attempting to direct it. The State should accompany,
enable, monitor and value such change by becoming a platform. A
State-Platform will be ready to make his time, competences, human,
technical and logistic resources available in order to organize
processes and territorial laboratories where things begin to happen
regardless of the administration, but in a more controlled and
legitimate way. It will grant everyone the possibility to experiment,
allowing everyone to be informed on what projects others citizens are
undertaking and perhaps to join them. Making sure that basic norms on
security and inclusion are respected, it should provide a free license
to experiment and imagine. The multitude of mistakes made and even more
of lessons learnt should become the base from which we begin to re-think
the State in the XXI century.

The model is closely paralleled by Abdullah Ocalan’s third principle of
Democratic Confederalism, whose “decision-making processes lie with the

Higher levels only serve the coordination and implementation of the will
of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies.
For limited space of time they are both mouthpiece and executive
institutions. However, the basic power of decision rests with the local
grass-roots institutions.

Tommaso Fattori, an activist in the Italian Water Commons movement,
discussed the Partner State in the context of commonification of public

The field of Commons can be for the most part identified with a public
but not-state arena, in which the actions of the individuals who
collectively take care of, produce and share the Commons are decisive
and fundamental.

In this sense, Commons and commoning can become a means for transforming
public sector and public services (often bureaucracy-bound and used to
pursue the private interests of lobby groups): a means for their
commonification (or commonalization). Indeed, there are many possible
virtuous crossovers between the traditional public realm and the realm
of Commons.

Commonification goes beyond the simple de-privatization of the public
realm: Commonification basically consists of its democratization,
bringing back elements of direct self-government and self-managing, by
the residents themselves, of goods and services of general interest (or
participatory management within revitalized public bodies).
Commonification is a process in which the inhabitants of a territory
regain capability and power to make decisions, to orientate choices,
rules, and priorities, reappropriating themselves of the very
possibility of governing and managing goods and services in a
participatory manner: it is this first-person activity which changes
citizens into commoners….

These are resources which do not belong to and which are not at the
disposal of governments or the State-as-person, because they belong to
the collectivity and above all, to future generations, who cannot be
expropriated of their rights. Distributed participatory management and
self-government, inclusion and collective enjoyment, no individual
exclusive rights, prevalence of use value over exchange value, meeting
of primary and diffuse needs: commons, in this understanding, means all
these things…. This is a road which could be the beginning of a
general transformation of the role of the state and of local authorities
into partner state, “namely public authorities which create the right
environment and support infrastructure so that citizens can peer produce
value from which the whole of society benefits.”…

Massimo De Angelis. Like the other gradualists we’ve looked
at, Massimo De Angelis frames the transition in terms of a shifting
balance between a decaying system in being and a successor system coming
into being within it.

As George Caffentzis writes in his cover blurb, De Angelis does for the
commons what Marx did for capital. He posits the C-M-C circuit as part
of a complementary commons circuit or circuit of social reproduction,
alongside Marx’s circuit of capital (M-C-M).

While for Marx the commodity is the elementary form of capitalist
wealth, so for me common goods are the elementary form of wealth of a
postcapitalist world.

De Angelis criticizes Marx for largely focusing on capital, to the
neglect of the role that the commons play in social reproduction under

C-M-C is a “selling-in-order-to-buy circuit.” The
difference between the two circuits is that “[t]he first has at [sic]
its goals the satisfaction of needs, and money here is a mere means for
the satisfaction of these needs. The second has as its goal the
realization of money: the means becomes here the end.”

This selling-in-order-to-buy circuit is nothing more than a membrane of
exchange between commons and capital systems, the boundary separating
commons from capital. As a subset of a larger commons circuit, the
simple selling-in-order-to-buy circuit only appears as contingently
necessary, and different commons may be distinguished by the degree of
their dependence on capital’s monetary circuits.

The point is that unlike the capital circuit, the simple commodity
circuit is just a means, hence scalable, depending on the external
context, to the structure of needs and desires and the resources that
can be mobilised in non-commoditised forms (through for example pooling,
gift circuits or administrative transfers).

Hence the commons, by growth, can reduce its need for interaction with
the circuit of capital via the cash nexus, and incorporate more and more
basic functions of life into itself.

The commons are constrained by the fact that they coexist with capital
and the state.

It is up to the commons, therefore, to develop their own politics to
attempt to shift these constraints….

The commons and capital circuits have coexisted since the beginning of
capitalism, with the boundary and correlation of forces between them
constantly shifting. The “structural coupling” between the two circuits
“allows one system to access and use the complexity of other systems.”
The correlation of forces at any given time determines the comparative
power of the commons circuit and capital circuit in setting the terms of
their mutual interface through the cash nexus, and whether the boundary
between them is such that capital on net uses the commons as a means to
its own ends more than the commons uses capital, or vice

…even if it is true that capital can co-opt commons, the opposite is
also true: the commons can access the complexity of capital systems for
their own development.

Commons and capital are two distinct, autonomous social systems; that
is, they both struggle to ‘take things into their own hands’ and
self-govern on the basis of their different and often clashing,
internally generated codes, measures and values. They also struggle to
be distinct autopoietic social systems, in that they aim to reproduce
not only their interrelations but also the preproduction of their
components through their internally generated codes and values. They do
this of course, in a clear, distinctive way. Capital can reproduce
itself only through profit and its accumulation, which ultimately imply
the exploitation of labour, the creation of divisions among the working
class, and the trashing of nature. Commons can reproduce through
commoning, doing in common, which is a social process embedded in
particular values that defines a sharing culture in a given time and
context, through which they reproduce resources and the community that
comprises them…. Commons are generated in so far as subjects become
commoners, in so far as their social being is enacted with others, at
different levels of social organization, through a social practice,
commoning, that is essentially horizontal and may embrace a variety of
forms depending on circumstances…, but ultimately is grounded in
community sharing. Capital, by contrast, tends to objectify,
instrumentalize and impose hierarchical order….

…[T]he commons and capital/state are often linked, coupled through the
buying-and-selling site of the market, that is, the ‘economy’. Both
capital and the commons buy and sell, although with different priorities
and as parts of different movements…. Capital buys in order to sell at a
profit… or as means of production, to turn resources into commodities….
Commons, on the other hand, tend to sell commodities in order to buy
means of sustenance and reproduction. For example, some members of a
household sell their labour power to gain an income in order to be able
to purchase the goods necessary for reproduction of the household; or an
association engages in petty trade to fund itself; or a social centre
sells beer at a concert to purchase the materials to build a kitchen.
Buying in order to sell and selling in order to buy are two opposite
praxes…, the former governed by a life activity ultimately wasted in
accumulation and the latter governed by the needs and desires of
reproduction…. In other words…, while reproduction of labour power is a
feature of the commons production of the commodity labour-power sold to
capital, capital does not necessarily control (or controls only in part
through the state and the education system) the labour of reproduction
which is fundamental to the commons.

…Furthermore, the environment of present-day commons is dominated by
capital loops, the circuits of capital that all wish to enclose and all
wish to turn into a profitable enterprise and overwork or destitution
for others. If we were to take the large, bird’s-eye view of history, of
the original accumulations of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in
South America, Africa, Asia and Europe up to the most recent transition
from the post-1945 Keynesian deal to neoliberal, several books could be
written about the co-evolution of capital and the commons, about how
commons sustained the enclosures of the former by regenerating newer
forms in different areas, and how capital has regenerated itself under
the impulse of commoner struggles on the shop floor, in neighbourhoods,
in bread or antiracist riots or women’s struggles.

I would add that books could be written — and I think a couple actually
have been by Kropotkin at least — on how the commons was the fundamental
basis of human society from the first neolithic open field villages
until the rise of class differentiation and the state, and that
successive systems of class exploitation and class states since then
have been parasitic layers extracting surpluses from the commons.

With the rise of hyper-efficient small-scale means of production not
amenable to centralized capitalist control, and the revolution in
networked many-to-many communications, we’re entering a new transition
period in which the productivity of the commons is becoming too great
for capital to successfully enclose or parasitize upon, and in which the
commons will ultimately reabsorb the whole of life and leave the
parasitic economic classes and their state to starve.

De Angelis refers to the stocks of common goods that accumulate within
commons systems and are available to them for internal use as

Like capital, commonwealth is thus a stock, but unlike capital the flows
it generates possess different goals and it is enacted through different
practices. However, like any other systems including capital, its flows
aim at going back to stocks, reproduce them, replenish them and enrich

And the intensification of capitalist crisis and further proletarization
“creates the conditions for the flourishing of reproduction

De Angelis’s picture of the growing commons circuit, as the foundation
for post-capitalist society, is a virtual mirror-image — albeit on a
higher technical level — of Marx’s picture in Grundrisse of direct
co-production for use in the commons in pre-capitalist times.

Capitalism could only come into existence, Marx argues, when labor was
made “free,” that is separated from “the objective conditions of its
realization — from the means of labour and the material for labour.” It
was necessary to nullify the right to both small-scale free landed
property and to communal landed property like that of the open-field

In either form of peasant proprietorship, as it existed before robbery
and enclosure, “the individuals relate not as workers but as proprietors

and members of a community, who at the same time work. The aim of this
work is not the creation of value… rather, its aim is sustenance of
the individual proprietor and of his family, as well as of the total

Property therefore means belong to a clan (community)…; and, by
means of the relation of this community to the land and soil, [relating]
to the earth as the individual’s inorganic body; his relation to land
and soil, to the external primary conditions of production… as to a
presupposition belonging to his individuality, as modes of his

Property, then, originally means… the relation of the working
(producing or self-reproducing) subject to the conditions of his
production or reproduction as his own…. This relation as proprietor…
presupposes the individual defined as a member of a clan or

This was true of open-field villages, it was true of individual
household possession by right as members of a clan, it was true of
rights of access by members of an urban commune to the public lands
outside the town walls, and it was true of Roman rights to cultivate a
share of the ager publicus. In every case the individual was born with
a right of access, guaranteed by custom, to the means of direct
production for subsistence, as well as membership in a social support
network against incapacitation or old age. “The property in one’s own
labour is mediated by property in the condition of labour…” flowing
from one’s membership in the commune.

The existence of an independent base of guaranteed subsistence, as a
member of a solidaritarian community, was an obstacle to creating an
economy based on the extraction of surplus value from wage laborers. The
necessity of competing with the possibility of direct production for
subsistence undermined the ability of employers to command labor in the
amounts they desired, and for the wages they were willing to pay; it
greatly reduced the rate of profit they could expect to obtain. The
creation of a capitalist wage system required the violent suppression of
peasant rights to the land, either as individual small-holders or
members of a commune, and their reduction to utter dependence on wage
labor — on the employer’s terms — for survival. The circuit of capital
presupposes the divorce of the individual from “their previous relations
to the objective conditions of labour.

Conversely, the renascence of the commons and expansion of the commons
circuit presuppose reuniting productive property with commoners, and
reincorporation of the means of production into the commons. The
commons, as the locus of direct production of use-value, and for
insurance against risk and mutual aid in time of need, again — as before
— undermines the ability of capitalist employers to compel labor on
their own terms, and will create a positive feedback process in which
each expansion of the capacity of the commons further weakens the
extractive capability of capital, and each weakening of capital causes
still more subsistence needs to be met in the commons instead of the
cash nexus. Capitalism imposed wage labor by suppressing the commons, as
described by Marx; and as described by De Angelis, the recomposition of
the commons will break the power of the wage system.

Again, this renewed and expanded commons mirrors the pre-capitalist
commons on a higher technical level. Writing of the pre-capitalist
commons, Marx noted that forms of production

in which the community presupposes its subjects in a specific objective
unity with their conditions of production, or in which a specific
subjective mode of being presupposes the communities themselves as
conditions of production, necessarily correspond to a development of the
forces of production which is only limited, and indeed limited in
principle. The development of the forces of production dissolves these
forms, and their dissolution is itself a development of the human
productive forces.

It is questionable whether this was ever true, whether it was ever
necessary to go through another stage of class exploitation, in order
that the forces of production be further developed to overcome scarcity
and lay the foundations for post-capitalist abundance; Lewis Mumford,
for example, lays out plausible scenarios for the development of
productive forces through a continuation of the eotechnic model, and
their direct continuation into something like the neotechnic, without
anything like the Enclosures and Dark Satanic Mills as a necessary means
of accumulation. But in any case — as already noted in a previous
chapter — developments in recent decades of the radical cheapening of
small-scale means of production suited to the household economy and to
the commons makes possible a shift to the commons as the primary locus
of material progress.

His mention of abolishing the worst aspects of capital and state echoes
ideas found in similar thinkers of shifting the nature of states
(ranging from Saint-Simon’s substitution of “administration of things”
for “governance of people” to Proudhon’s “dissolving the state in
society” to Orsi’s Partner State) and corporations (experiments in
self-management, open-sourcing IP, etc.) even under the existing system,
in order to make them somewhat less extractive and hierarchical, and lay
the groundwork for a fundamental alteration in their character when the
larger system they are a part of reaches its tipping point. The nature
of the corporation or state agency is determined by the nature of the
larger system of which it is a part (e.g. the evolution of craft guilds
from a cooperative ethos at the height of the Middle Ages to an
essentially corporate capitalist model dominated by large masters
engaged in the export trade in early modern times). The legacy
institutions that are able to negotiate the transition process and
survive with some degree of organizational continuity in the successor
society may still have the same names, but they will be largely
different in substance.

[Last Edited October 7, 2020]

Chapter Six: Interstitial Development and Exodus over Insurrection


If the New Left did not altogether abandon the ideas of insurrectionary
assault and seizure of control of the preexisting institutions of state
and corporation, it at least favored, far more than the Old Left, a
concurrent interstitial approach of building counter-institutions as the
nucleus of a future society.

Tom Hayden, writing in 1966, put it in language that would sound
entirely familiar to those involved in the Italian social centers of the
70s, the Argentinian recuperated factories, or today’s municipalist
movements in Barcelona and Madrid:

To summarize: the Movement is a community of insurgents sharing the same
radical values and identity, seeking an independent base of power
wherever they are. It aims at a transformation of society led by the
most excluded and “unqualified” people. Primarily, this means building
institutions outside the established order which seek to become the
genuine institutions of the total society. Community unions, freedom
schools, experimental universities, community-formed police review
boards, people’s own anti-poverty organizations fighting for federal
money, independent union locals — all can be “practical” pressure points
from which to launch reform in the conventional institutions while at
the same time maintaining a separate base and pointing towards a new
system. Ultimately, this movement might lead to a Continental Congress
called by all the people who feel excluded from the higher circles of
decision-making in the country. This Congress might even become a kind
of second government, receiving taxes from its supporters, establishing
contact with other nations, holding debates on American foreign and
domestic policy, dramatizing the plight of all groups that suffer from
the American system.

And if this is only partly true of the New Left, it is much more fully
true of subsequent phenomena like autonomism and the post-1994
horizontalist resistance movements.

Note on Terminology. The term “interstitial” overlaps
somewhat in meaning with “prefigurative,” and the two words are often
used more or less interchangeably among the same general currents of the
Left. I used “prefigurative” more myself in earlier drafts of this book
than in the final one, but decided it had shades of meaning that were

For me “prefigurative” carries a whiff of
idealistic lifestylism, whereas “interstitial” suggests actually
building the new society here and now rather than just prefiguring it.
As an illustration: Marx saw worker worker cooperatives as “prefiguring”
postcapitalist society in that they showed what was possible, but he
didn’t consider them feasible on any significant scale under the
material conditions of capitalism; rather, they were something that
could only become actual building blocks of society “after the
Revolution.” The new municipalist movements today, to take a contrasting
example, see community land trusts, alternative currencies, neighborhood
gardens and workshops, etc., not just as “prefigurations” of the future
society but as the actual beginnings of it: things that will grow and
coalesce into the core of the postcapitalist system and eventually
supplant capitalism.

And among its advocates, prefigurative politics is used more in the
first sense — that is, as Marx saw cooperatives — than in the second.
Present-day writer Sofa Saio Gradin, for example, describes it as “the
politics of organising in the here-and-now in a way that reflects the
society we want to see in the future,” and “about shaping our cultures,
norms and social relations, as well as our formal rules and policies, in
the image of the society we desire.” It’s more about the attitudes it
encourages (“the daily behaviours, assumptions and relationships of the
general population”) than any actual post-capitalist institutions that
will persist through the phase transition.

And one of the first people to use the term in its current sense, Carl
Boggs, defined it as “the embodiment, within the ongoing political
practice of a movement, of those forms of social relations,
decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate

The interstitial approach is ideally suited to remedy the defects of
prefiguration, as Boggs complained of it:

The dilemmas of modern prefigurative movements came from the legacy of
the entire prefigurative tradition, which in contrast to Leninism and
structural reformism sought to affirm the actuality of revolutionary
goals. In rejecting a vanguardism, they often ignored the state and the
problem of power; in stressing the prefigurative side, they downplayed
the task of organization. And like the organized Marxist movements, they
ultimately failed to articulate a democratic socialist theory of
transition. The instability and vulnerability of dual power necessitates
rapid movement toward a broad system of nationwide revolutionary
authority; without this, as history shows, local structures are unable
to translate popular energies into a sustained movement that is both
prefigurative and politically effective. What is required, and what the
entire prefigurative strategy lacks, is a merging of spontaneism and the
“external element,” economics and politics, local democratic and state
power struggles. But the recent experiences of radical movements in
capitalist countries reflect a continued polarization between
prefigurative and statist strategies that is harmful to such a

Interstitial development is precisely the organizational approach,
addressing the problem of power and providing the theory of transition,
that Boggs found lacking.

I. The Split Within Autonomism

Although autonomism shares many areas of commonality, there is a major
difference in approach between (on the one hand) Antonio Negri and
Michael Hardt, and (on the other) Harry Cleaver, Silvia Federici, John
Holloway and Massimo De Angelis. Both sides of the split stress the
importance of interstitial development and of working class agency and
subjectivity in post-capitalist transition. But Negri et al see
capitalism as a totalizing system without an outside, which has already
enclosed the whole of society via the social factory. The intangibles we
already occupy (the knowledge we carry in our heads, the social
relationships in society outside the factory, etc.) are the primary
sources of productivity, but they are all within the circuit of capital.
It therefore remains only to understand that we’re already in
communism, in the sense that capitalism has created all the
prerequisites of communism within itself, that we’re already in
possession of most of the means of production, and that all that remains
to us is to cut off capital as a superfluous node. As Angelos
Varvarousis put it:

Hardt and Negri do not view the commons as relatively independent social
systems of resource management. Instead, they focus on the more abstract
level of the production of “the common” as an inseparable social force
that is already taking shape due to the informatization and
“cognitivization” of production. For them, the expansion of commoning
practices and of the “common” as a distinct mode of social relations
does not take the form of a counterpower or resistance to capital but is
immanent in capitalism’s process of evolution….

On the other hand, Federici et al deny that capitalism is a completed,
totalizing system. The circuit of capital has totalizing imperatives of
valorization and accumulation; but it is in a constant struggle to
reproduce itself against other contending spheres like the commons,
which are resisting enclosure. So building a post-capitalist system
requires treating the autonomous commons as building blocks and
expanding them.

If we first strip away Negri et al’s false understanding of capitalism
as a totalizing system with no outside, we’re still left with two areas
of emphasis by the contending sides that are more complementary than
contradictory. What’s needed is a synthesis that incorporates the
positive sides of both.

II. The Shift From the Factory to Society as the Main Locus of

A major theme of the Negri, Hardt and Dyer-Witheford wing of autonomism
is the way in which workers’ own social relationships have become the
main source of productive capital, as physical capital has declined in
importance relative to human capital and production has taken on a
networked, horizontal character. And at the same time, the boundaries
between this increasingly social production process and the rest of life
— the spheres of consumption, family life, lifelong learning and the
reproduction of labor-power — are becoming more and more blurred. As
Nick Dyer-Witheford writes:

The activities of people not just as workers but as students, consumers,
shoppers and television viewers are now directly integrated into the
production process. During the era of the mass worker, the consumption
of commodities and the reproduction of labor had been organized as
spheres of activity adjunct to, yet distinct from, production. Now these
borders fray…. Work, school, and domesticity are re-formed into a
single, integrated constellation.

And the growing centrality of network communications and information to
all forms of production, and the penetration of this networked culture
into the entire cultural sphere, means that it becomes a familiar part
of the worker’s life.

When workers’ skills and social relationships become the main form of
capital, the converse is that —in contrast to the days when “capital”
was expensive, absentee-owned physical capital that workers were paid to
come to a physical location and work — workers are in direct possession
of a much larger share of the prerequisites of production.

Likewise, as Dyer-Witheford paraphrases Negri, “the new communicative
capacities and technological competencies manifesting in the
contemporary work force…”

exist in “virtual” form among the contingent and unemployed labor force.
They are not so much the products of a particular training or specific
work environment but rather the premises and prerequisites of everyday
life in a highly integrated technoscientific system permeated by
machines and media.

In Negri’s own words, “the raw material on which the very high level of
productivity is based — the only raw material… which is suitable for
an intellectual and inventive labour force — is science, communication
and the communication of knowledge
.” To extract profit from the
cooperative relationships between workers, capital “must… appropriate
communication. It must expropriate the community and superimpose itself
on the autonomous capability of manufacturing knowledge…”

The socialized worker’s labour is more productive than that of the mass
worker. It is endowed with a very high level of productive potential
because it is capable of setting in motion the productive potentiality
of the whole of society…. At all levels and in all contexts, community
has increasingly become the foundation of the productivity of labour….
Today capitalist expropriation no longer takes place through wages
alone. Given the conditions we have described, expropriation no longer
simply consists in the expropriation of the producer, but, in the most
immediate sense, in the expropriation of the producers’ community….
Advanced capitalism directly expropriates labouring cooperation. Capital
has penetrated the entire society by means of technological and
political instruments… to anticipate, organize and subsume each of the
forms of labouring cooperation which are established in society in order
to generate a higher level of productivity. Capital has insinuated
itself everywhere, and everywhere attempts to acquire the power to
coordinate, commandeer and recuperate value.

But in doing this, capital must diffuse the informational tools of
production into workers’ hands. And the skills and social relationships
capital profits off of become an inseparable part of the worker’s mind
and personality. Unlike the case of the physical factory, where
management could search workers’ lunchboxes for tools and parts on the
way out the door, employers cannot force workers to upload their
knowledge and skill, or their social relationships, to a company
mainframe when they clock out. The implication, as Dyer-Witheford sees

By informating production, capital seems to augment its powers of
control. But it simultaneously stimulates capacities that threaten to
escape its command and overspill into rivulets irrelevant to, or even
subversive of, profit.

In many areas of production, I would add, the communication and
information processing tools used in the workplace are becoming
virtually indistinguishable from those used in the social sphere. Wikis
and blogs, and social media like Twitter, developed primarily for use
outside the workplace, have been seized on by champions of the “Wikified
Firm” or “Enterprise 2.0” as tools for coordinating production within
the workplace. At the same time, open-sourced desktop or browser-based
utilities are frequently more productive and usable than the proprietary
“productivity software” forced on workers in the workplace. As Tom
Coates put it, “the gap between what can be accomplished at home and
what can be accomplished in a work environment has narrowed dramatically
over the last ten to fifteen years.”

Since Marx’s day, according to Negri and Hardt, his simple schema of the
circuit of capital (production and circulation) has expanded to
encompass virtually all of society, including both the reproduction of
nature and the reproduction of labor-power—the “social

The concept of the social factory was introduced in “Factory and
Society,” Mario Tronti’s 1962 article in Quaderni Rossi: capital
colonizes “the whole of society” with the result that society becomes “a
function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination
over the whole of society.”

Negri argued that Marx himself anticipated this concept in Grundrisse.
Capital is forced to overcome every barrier to realization in the
circulation process by transcending it and incorporating it into itself,
so that an ever greater share of all social activity is incorporated
into the circuit of capital.

Circulation produces the socialization of capital. Marx fully
appreciates this passage to social capital and stresses it: “there
opened up for us the prospect, which cannot be sharply defined yet at
this point, of a specific relation of capital to the communal, general
conditions of social production
, as distinct from the conditions of a
particular capital and its particular production process.” Therefore
the leap to “social capital,” like the leap to “social labor” is not a
generic one. It is a qualitative leap which permeates the category of
. Society appears to us as capital’s society. It is through this
passage that all social conditions are subsumed by capital, that is,
they become part of its “organic composition.”

Harry Cleaver cites Negri’s observation that capital has pursued the
“subsumption of society”:

(i.e., reshaping of all of human activities as work that contributes to
its expanded reproduction)….

As all human activities are being subsumed by capital as work, Negri and
others argue, it becomes impossible to distinguish work from nonwork,
“the division between work time and non-work time” breaks down. Under
such conditions, he argues, appropriating a concept from Foucault, life
becomes “biopolitical labor,” and it becomes impossible to quantify and
measure labor that produces value (abstract labor) as something distinct
from other human activity.

III. Negri et al vs. the Commons

Negri does not envision a transition strategy based on shifting to
direct production for use in the commons sector outside capitalist
control, but rather envisioned working class self-valorization as
something taking place within the totalizing sphere of capital as a
result of the contradictions of an overall system that capital itself
has created. For him the primary significance of working-class
self-valorization as an antagonist to the circuit of capital is the
expansion of the scale of necessary labor and consumption entailed in
both the reproduction of labor power and the realization of capital;
this increased scale shifts the balance of power between labor and
capital so that the former attains the capability of ending capitalism
from within, not from outside.

Here a fundamental law of the transition to communism is clarified: the
transition is possible when the working class, instead of being moved by
capital, moves itself and subordinates capital to its own forms of
. This material and objective dictatorship of the class over
capital is the first fundamental passage of transition, most obviously
when the relationship does not result in the capitalist mediation of
development, but rather in the workers’ mediation of capital’s

Self-valorization does include some interstitial and prefigurative
effort, but the primary focuses of this effort are the refusal of work
and direct appropriation — i.e. demanding a greater share of the social
product created by capitalism with less work, not building alternative
institutions. Refusal of work increasingly comes to
forefront as a spontaneous phenomenon. “The communist contents of the
program begin to be expressed from the lowest level of worker behavior
such as absenteeism, sabotage, direct-individual and
group-appropriation, etc.” For Negri the refusal of work
is “the content of the process of self-valorization,” and the refusal
of work “is first and foremost sabotage, strikes, direct
.” He sees the shifting balance of power as
significant insofar as it empowers working class struggle against
capital within the social factory, rather than the direct creation of
a postcapitalist society in spaces outside the control of capital.

Negri at times uses language that could be interpreted as referring to
direct production for use in the social sector: “the progress of the
process of self-valorization is measured positively by the
multiplication of socially useful labor dedicated to the free
reproduction of proletarian society.” But as Michael
Ryan clarifies in his Epilogue to Marx Beyond Marx, this refers to
obtaining a space for independent reproduction (“developing the
independence of its own processes of reproduction”) through a “social
wage,” or something like a Basic Income (“the class’ reappropriation of
the mechanisms of its own reproduction (via public
expenditure)”). Still, Negri’s “refusal of work” is
fully consistent with — and magnificently exemplified by — Massimo De
Angelis’s later advocacy of direct production for use in the commons.

Autonomist thinkers like Federici, Holloway and De Angelis have
subsequently developed these possibilities in explicit form, in
contradiction to Negri’s vision of capitalism as a system without an
outside. It follows from all this that the main form of revolution
ceases to be seizing the factories, whether social or literal, and
instead becomes — in the term coined by Negri and Hardt in
Commonwealth — “exodus.” It is feasible to undertake an ever larger
share of production of life’s necessities in the social sphere, in
self-provisioning in the informal economy, through commons-based peer
production, or through cooperative labor by workers using affordable
high-tech tools in their own homes and shops. And the social
relationships which capital has enclosed as a source of profit are
vulnerable to being repurposed in the form of counter-institutions.

IV. Theoretical Implications

The Vulnerability of the Social Factory. The concept of “Exodus,”
developed in the last book of the Empire trilogy (Commonwealth),
envisioned the share of capitalist production that was directly
administered by workers, based on their direct occupancy of the means of
informational production and the superfluity of capital, enabling
workers to simply cut capital out of the process altogether.

…the trend toward the hegemony or prevalence of immaterial production in
the processes of capitalist valorization…. Images, information,
knowledge, affects, codes, and social relationships… are coming to
outweigh material commodities or the material aspects of commodities in
the capitalist valorization process. This means, of course, not that the
production of material goods… is disappearing or even declining in
quantity but rather that their value is increasingly dependent on and
subordinated to immaterial factors and goods…. What is common to these
different forms of labor… is best expressed by their biopolitical
character…. Living beings as fixed capital are at the center of this
transformation, and the production of forms of life is becoming the
basis of added value. This is a process in which putting to work human
faculties, competences, and knowledges — those acquired on the job but,
more important, those accumulated outside work interacting with
automated and computerized productive systems — is directly productive
of value. One distinctive feature of the work of head and heart, then,
is that paradoxically the object of production is really a subject,
defined… by a social relationship or a form of life.

Capitalist accumulation today is increasingly external to the production
process, such that exploitation takes the form of expropriation of the

…[C]lass struggle in the biopolitical context takes the form of
exodus. By exodus here we mean… a process of subtraction from the
relationship with capital by means of actualizing the potential autonomy
of labor-power. Exodus is thus not a refusal of the productivity of
biopolitical labor-power but rather a refusal of the increasingly
restrictive fetters placed on its productive capacities by capital….
As a first approximation, then, think of this form of class struggle as
a kind of maroonage. Like the slaves who collectively escape the chains
of slavery to construct self-governing communities and quilombos,
biopolitical labor-power subtracting from its relation to capital must
discover and construct new social relationships, new forms of life that
allow it to actualize its productive powers. But unlike that of the
maroons, this exodus does not necessarily mean going elsewhere. We can
pursue a line of flight while staying right here, by transforming the
relations of production and mode of social organization under which we

But this vision is of a communist society already in being, which
workers simply take over from inside. There is another, entirely
different, autonomist vision which we will examine below.

The Vulnerability of the Social Factory to the “Outside.” The other
autonomist vision, rather than treating capitalism as a totalizing
system with no “outside,” which is creating communism through its own
internal laws of motion, views the reproduction of capitalism as a
contested process in which we constantly create our outside to the
system, in the form of commons-based counter-institutions which together
constitute a parallel counter-system in process of withdrawing resources
from capitalism and supplanting it. Bengi Akbulut describes the role of
the commons in this tendency:

In particular, this approach [the Autonomist Marxist approach epitomised
by the works of Caffentzis, Federici, De Angelis and more broadly the
Midnight Notes Collective] conceptualises the commons as social spheres
of life the main characteristics of which are to provide various degrees
of protection from the market. That is, the commons form modes of social
reproduction and accessing social resources that are not mediated by the
market. They are non-commodified forms of fulfilling social needs such
as obtaining social wealth and organising social production….

Seen this way, commons are no longer limited to shared forms of natural
and social wealth, but include forms of relationships, networks,
practices and struggles that provide (varying degrees of) access to
means of material and social reproduction outside of the mediation of
the market. This conceptualisation goes beyond an understanding of
commons as existing, pre-defined entities, and rather points to the
amalgam of social relations and practices that produce and reproduce
commons…. Moreover, this emphasises not only the commons as process
but also the particular characteristics of their constitutive social
practices. Accordingly, commons are forms of non-commodified wealth to
be used by all, sites of collective cooperative labour and regulated
non-hierarchically. More specifically, then, commons emerge as spaces of
social reproduction accessed equally by all, autonomous of
intermediation of the State or the market, where reproduction and
production takes place under collective labour, equal access to means of
(re)production and egalitarian forms of decision-making.

Within this context, time banks, urban gardens, land and urban squats,
food coops, local currencies, ‘creative commons’ licenses and bartering
practices, in addition to communal control and use of resources, emerge
as contemporary forms of commons. These examples represent practices in
self-provisioning outside the logic of markets and, to varying extents,
embody a collective form of self-reproduction…. They are also venues
of knowledge production, intergenerational transmission/ exchange and of
reproduction of social relationships, as well as a medium for the
encounter of diverse cultural practices. Similar examples of commoning
are: appropriations of unused plots of public land for subsistence
farming by landless rural and urban women; local currencies and
bartering practices that represent networks of exchange outside of
market relations; and community governance of water through committees,
such as those set up in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

As the examples above suggest, this approach defines commons not
necessarily (or exclusively) by their common-pool resource
characteristics (rivalry in consumption and non-exclusion of users), but
rather by the degree of autonomy they provide from capital and State,
and the type of social relationships that constitute

This autonomist counter-tendency arguably goes back at least to Harry
Cleaver who, even while promoting Negri’s thought, quietly shifted his
emphasis. Rather than viewing all of society as already subsumed in the
“social factory,” Cleaver promotes a “ruptural”
strategy (in a somewhat idiosyncratic use of the term) of creating and
expanding areas of life that are outside capitalist control. He does so,
however, in a way that shares some of Negri’s and Hardt’s terminology
(e.g. “refused work”) and maintains some commonalities with their

Against the capitalist project of infinite totalization and expansion,
people have resisted commodification, defended the commons, and refused
work. Every successful resistance, every rupture of existing
capital-labor dialectics, whether in the factory, office, school, or
home, has limited or set back capitalist expansion.

…The rupture of [capital’s] command… often involves the destruction
of existing relationships only in the sense of freeing them from
capital’s grip and of reorganizing them in healthier, more appealing

Cleaver also borrows Negri’s term “self-valorization,” although
developing it in directions that imply a significant divergence from his
totalizing view of capitalism.

Negri’s concept of “self-valorization” aimed at… showing how the power
of refusal could and must be complemented by the power of constitution.
In many ways his concept expressed the side of workers struggles,
especially those of young workers, which was coming to the fore in the
late 1960s and early 1970s: the creative use of times, spaces and
resources liberated from the control of Italian and multinational
capital — uses such as the proliferation of “free radio stations” or the
widespread development of women’s spaces which, along with many other
self-managed projects, helped constitute what many came to call “the

…Alongside the power of refusal or the power to destroy capital’s
determination, we find in the midst of working class recomposition, the
power of creative affirmation, the power to constitute new practices….

The relationship between the refusal of capital’s determination and the
affirmation of self-valorizing activities is an intimate one. The power
of self-valorization is largely the power to fill the spaces liberated
from capitalist domination with alternative, autonomous projects….

An important part of Negri’s elaboration of the concept of
self-valorization is his recognition that, unlike valorization and
unlike most socialist visualizations of communism, it does not designate
the self-construction of a unified social project but rather denotes a
“plurality” of instances, a multiplicity of independent undertakings —
not only in the spaces opened within and against capitalism but also in
their full realization. Communism, for Negri, is thus not only a
self-constituting praxis, but also the realization of “multilaterality”
of the proletarian subject, or better, of a subject which in its
self-realization explodes into multiple autonomous

As the above quote suggests, one major form of such self-valorization is
building a parallel society and economy outside the control of capital,
in which we can replace commodified relationships and production with
direct production for use.

De-commodification therefore involves the bypassing of sales and
exchange-value in favor of folks directly realizing the use-values of
goods, services, and their own abilities. Such a bypassing happens
sporadically, when goods and services are directly appropriated by
workers, on the job or off, and it happens much more systematically in
activities such as peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, especially of
software, music, video, and film. Such activities, by appropriating
goods directly, remove them from the market and undermine the ability of
capitalists to realize surplus value and profits, and thus the
continuing value of the labor employed as a means of social control. The
adaptation and diversion of workers’ abilities to their own autonomous
pursuits also undermines their employers’ control….

Another kind of bypassing takes place when we undertake to meet our
needs and satisfy our desires directly — without the mediation of money,
markets, or commodities — in ways that go beyond the mere reproduction
of our lives as labor power to be sold in some capitalist labor market
for a wage or salary. On a small scale, such direct meeting of needs has
a long history, especially in small rural communities, not only in the
behavior of families but also in collective collaboration for raising
houses and barns, sharing seeds, gathering crops, or fishing. In cities
there have always been communities, especially immigrant working-class
ones, where folks help each other out in a variety of ways, many of
which involve no money or exchange.

This amounts to taking our creativity, which is currently appropriated
and alienated from us by capitalism, outside capitalist control.

One of the most important insights of Marx’s analysis of capitalism is
that it is a way of organizing life that is intrinsically lifeless, it
endlessly reproduces itself (where it has the power) but the only
newness in that reproduction comes from those aspects of people’s
imagination and creativity which it has been forced, and able, to
harness, to constrain within the limits of its own reproduction….

Once we recognize that the source of invention and innovation in society
lies not within the system of domination itself (which can only harness
it at best — and often represses it) but in the autonomous activities of
the people within the system, once we see that we are the real source of
change and the architects of the future, then we can see two other
things: first, that our task is to eliminate the constraints on our
creativity imposed by capitalism (or any other system of domination) and
second, between the millions of moments of creation and the moments of
repression or cooptation, there exist spaces in which new things, new
ways of being are created that go beyond the way things are. It is only
the content of these spaces that can provide us with alternative

In his Introduction to Marx Beyond Marx, he stresses this theme in
Negri’s work in a way that subtly shifts the emphasis away from Negri’s
original intent. The replacement of capitalism by socialism, and the
construction of a post-capitalist society, is an ongoing, interstitial

Because capital’s central means of social domination is the imposition
of work and surplus work, the subordination of necessary labor to
surplus labor, Negri sees that one of the two most fundamental aspects
of working class struggle is the struggle against work. Where profit is
the measure of capitalist development and control, Negri argues that the
refusal of work measures the transition out of capital. The refusal of
work appears as a constituting praxis that produces a new mode of
production, in which the capitalist relation is reversed and surplus
labor is totally subordinated to working-class need.

The second, positive side to revolutionary struggle is the elaboration
of the self-determined multiple projects of the working class in the
time set free from work and in the transformation of work itself. This
self-determined project Negri calls self-valorization. Communism is thus
constituted both by the refusal of work that destroys capital’s imposed
unity and by the self-valorization that builds diversity and “rich,
independent multilaterality.”

(Of course Negri, unlike Cleaver, sees this interstitial development as
something the workers are doing within capitalism, taking advantage of
the changing structure of production brought about by capitalism itself
and simply taking it over as a whole. In this he resembles the

Cleaver sees the future post-capitalist society as an outgrowth and
coalescence of the working class’s projects here and now. Rather than
drawing up blueprints for the future, he commends Kropotkin’s approach
of identifying tendencies in the existing society and the direction in
which they are developing. Like Kropotkin, Cleaver sets us the task of
“how to discover tendencies in the present which provide alternative
paths out of the current crisis and out of the capitalist
system.” Thus the autonomist approach

redefines the ‘transition’ from capitalism to communism in terms of the
elaboration from the present into the future of existing forms of
self-valorisation or commons. Communism is reconceptualised in harmony
with Kropotkin’s views, not as a some-day-to-be-achieved utopia but as a
living reality whose growth needs only to be freed from constraint.

Like Kropotkin’s studies, such efforts to discover the future in the
present were based not only on a theory of collective subjectivity but
also on empirical studies of real workers in action.

Silvia Federici, John Holloway and Massimo De Angelis likewise treat the
commons as a challenge to capitalist hegemony from outside, but go
beyond Cleaver in making their break with Negri fully explicit.

Federici refers dismissively to Negri’s belief that capitalism, by
informatizing production and organizing the economy around networked
communications, is already creating a society based on the commons. She
likewise dismisses the corollary view that the only remaining task for
the Multitude is to cut the capitalists out of the communist society
they’ve created.

In her own thought, going back to the 70s, she has emphasized the agency
of ordinary people — women in particular — in building the structure of
communist society, and criticized the vulgar Marxism of the conventional
Left in viewing capital as the main progressive agent of history in
laying the groundwork for communism.

But you don’t need to enter a factory to be part of a working class
organization. When [Carol] Lopate argues that “the ideological
preconditions for working class solidarity are networks and connections
which arise from working together” and “these preconditions cannot arise
out of isolated women working in separate homes,” she writes off the
struggles these “isolated” women made in the 1960s (rent strikes,
welfare struggles etc.). She assumes that we cannot organize ourselves
if we are not first organized by capital; and since she denies that
capital has already organized us, she denies the existence of our

She stresses above all the importance of organizing the social sectors
involved in the reproduction of everyday life as a commons outside the
control of the circuit of capital, in order to provide a base for
resistance and for the construction of post-capitalist society.

If the destruction of our means of subsistence is
indispensable for the survival of capitalist relations, this must be our
terrain of struggle….

Like every form of self-determination, women’s liberation requires
specific material conditions, starting with control over the basic means
of production and subsistence….[T]his principle holds not only for
women in the “Third World,” who have been major protagonists of land
struggles to recover land occupied by big landowners but also for women
in industrialized countries. In New York, women are defending from
bulldozers their urban gardens, the products of much collective work
that brought together entire communities and revitalized neighborhoods
previously considered disaster zones.

What is needed is the reopening of a collective struggle over
reproduction, reclaiming control over the material conditions of our
reproduction and creating new forms of cooperation around this work
outside of the logic of capital and the market. This is not a utopia,
but a process already under way in many parts of the world and likely to
expand in the face of a collapse of the world financial system.
Governments are now attempting to use the crisis to impose stiff
austerity regimes on us for years to come. But through land takeovers,
urban farming, community-supported agriculture, through squats, the
creation of various forms of barter, mutual aid, alternative forms of
healthcare — to name some of the terrains on which this reorganization
of reproduction is more developed — a new economy is beginning to emerge
that may turn reproductive work from a stifling, discriminating activity
into the most liberating and creative ground of experimentation in human

As I stated, this is not a utopia. The consequences of the globalized
world economy would certainly have been far more nefarious except for
the efforts that millions of women have made to ensure that their
families would be supported, regardless of their value on the capitalist
labor market. Through their subsistence activities, as well as various
forms of direct action (from squatting on public land to urban farming)
women have helped their communities to avoid total dispossession, to
extend budgets and add food to the kitchen pots. Amid wars, economic
crises, and devaluations, as the world around them was falling apart,
they have planted corn on abandoned town plots, cooked food to sell on
the side of the streets, created communal kitchens… thus standing in the
way of a total commodification of life and beginning a process of
reappropriation and recollectivization of reproduction that is
indispensable if we are to regain control over our lives. The festive
squares and “occupy” movements of 2011 are in a way a continuation of
this process as the “multitudes” have understood that no movement is
sustainable that does not place at its center the reproduction of those
participating in it, thus also transforming the protest demonstrations
into moments of collective reproduction and cooperation.

She also criticized conventional Marxism in language in much the same
way she criticized Negri — and compared it unfavorably to Kropotkin’s
approach — for treating the organization of cooperative labor as a
progressive function of capital and something imposed on the working
class as a passive object.

…[Marx] discussed “cooperation” only in the
process of commodity production overlooking the qualitatively different
forms of proletarian cooperation in the process of reproduction which
Kropotkin later called “mutual aid.”

Cooperation among workers is for Marx a fundamental character of the
capitalist organization of work, “entirely brought about by the
capital[ists],” coming into place only when the workers “have ceased to
belong to themselves,” being purely functional to the increase in the
efficiency and productivity of labor. As such, it leaves no space for
the manifold expressions of solidarity and the many “institutions for
mutual support” — “associations, societies, brotherhoods, alliances” —
that Kropotkin found present among the industrial population of his
time. As Kropotkin noted, these very forms of mutual aid put limits to
the power of capital and the State over the workers’ lives, enabling
countless proletarians not to fall into utter ruin, and sowing the seeds
of a self-managed insurance system, guaranteeing some protection against
unemployment, illness, old age and death.

…Feminists have rejected the centrality that Marxism has historically
assigned to waged industrial work and commodity production as the
crucial sites for social transformation, and they have criticized its
neglect of the reproduction of human beings and labor power. The
feminist movement’s lesson has been that not only is reproduction the
pillar of the “social factory,” but changing the conditions under which
we reproduce ourselves is an essential part of our ability to create
“self-reproducing movements.”

She saw the commoning of the reproduction of everyday life as a form of
“the cooperation we develop among ourselves,” and “the seeds of the new
world.” “These efforts need to be expanded. They are essential to a
reorganization of our everyday life and the creation of nonexploitative
social relations.”

Like Massimo De Angelis (as we will see below) she viewed the
reclamation of the agricultural commons and food security/sovereignty as
especially vital in creating a commons-based sphere of social
reproduction outside the sphere of capital.

Land is the material basis for women’s subsistence work, which is the
main source of “food security” for millions of people across the planet.
Against this background, I look at the struggles that women are making
worldwide not only to reappropriate land, but to boost subsistence
farming and a noncommercial use of natural resources. These efforts are
extremely important not only because thanks to them billions of people
are able to survive, but because they point to the changes that we have
to make if we are to construct a society where reproducing ourselves
does not come at the expense of other people nor present a threat to the
continuation of life on the planet.

…[S]ubsistence agriculture has been an important means of support for
billions of workers, giving wage laborers the possibility to contract
better conditions of work and survive labor strikes and political

As we have seen, in cities across the world, at least a quarter of the
inhabitants depend on food produced by women’s subsistence labor. In
Africa, for example, a quarter of the people living in towns say they
could not survive without subsistence food production. This is confirmed
by the UN Population Fund, which claims that “some two hundred million
city dwellers are growing food, providing about one billion people with
at least part of their food supply….”

We can also see that subsistence production is contributing to a
noncompetitive, solidarity-centered mode of life that is crucial for the
building of a new society. It is the seed of what Veronika
Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies call the “other” economy, which “puts
life and everything necessary to produce and maintain life on this
planet at the center of economic and social activity” against “the
never-ending accumulation of dead money.”

In another essay she discusses the potential of commons as “the
foundation of a noncapitalist economy,” stressing in particular the
importance of urban gardens and the food commons as engaging in direct
production for use, thereby presenting a way of restoring people’s
control over part of the reproduction process outside the control of the
state or the market economy.

Taken all together, then, shifting all the prerequisites for
reproduction of human life from the cash nexus to commons-based
institutions in the social economy gives us the basis for immediate
resistance against the exploitative power of capital, and a foundation
for the further construction of post-capitalist society. It’s also a way
for people in the Global North to combat imperialist wealth extraction.

For us, in North America, an added lesson is that by pooling our
resources, by reclaiming land and waters, and turning them into a
common, we could begin to de-link our reproduction from the commodity
flows that through the world market are responsible for the
dispossession of so many people in other parts of the world. We could
disentangle our livelihood, not only from the world market but from the
war-machine and prison system on which the hegemony of the world market

The times are propitious for such a start. As the capitalist crisis is
destroying the basic element of reproduction for millions of people
across the world, including the United States, the reconstruction of our
everyday life is a possibility and a necessity. Like strikes,
social/economic crises break the discipline of the wage-work, forcing
upon us new forms of sociality…. Today, as millions of Americans’
houses and cars have been repossessed, as foreclosures, evictions, the
massive loss of employment are again breaking down the pillars of the
capitalist discipline of work, new common grounds are again taking
shape, like the tent cities that are sprawling from coast to coast. This
time, however, it is women who must build the new commons, so that they
do not remain transient spaces or temporary autonomous zones, but become
the foundation of new forms of social reproduction.

If the house is the oikos on which the economy is built, then it is
women, historically the house-workers and house-prisoners, who must take
the initiative to reclaim the house as a center of collective life…,
allowing for the sharing and circulation of community possessions, and
above all providing the foundation for collective forms of

John Holloway, another thinker in the autonomist tradition, argues for
treating capitalism, not as a completed totality, but as a system that
is recreated every day using our own labor.

…The problem is not to destroy that society but to stop creating it.
Capitalism exists today not because we created two hundred years ago or
a hundred years ago, but because we create it today. If we do not create
it tomorrow, it will not exist.

…We take an active part in constructing the domination that oppresses
us, the obscenity that horrifies us. We create surplus value, we respect
money, we accept and impose unreasoned authority, we live by the clock,
we close our eyes to the starving. We make capitalism. And now we must
stop making it….

…When Marx says at the beginning of Capital that the commodity
stands outside us, alien to us, but its secret is that we made it…, then
our reaction is one both of horror and of hope. We are astonished that
we should spend our lives making objects that deny our existence, that
are alien to us and dominate us, but at the same time we see hope,
because those objects depend totally upon us for their existence: our
doing is at the centre of everything, our doing is the hidden sun around
which everything revolves.

For Holloway the way to stop re-creating capitalism is to progressively
shift more and more of our doing into activities that create a different
way of doing things.

A sustained global mass strike would destroy capital completely, but the
conditions for that do not exist at the moment. It is hard to see how
everybody in the world could be persuaded to refuse to work for capital
at the same time.

For the moment at least, the only way of thinking of revolution is in
terms of a number of rents, tears, holes, fissures that spread through
the social fabric. There are already millions of such holes, spaces in
which people, individually or collectively, say, “NO, here capital does
not rule, here we shall not structure our lives according to the
dictates of capital.” These holes are refusals, disobediences,
insubordinations. In some cases (the EZLN in Chiapas, the MST in Brazil,
the uprising in Bolivia, the piqueteros and asambleas barriales
in Argentina, and so on), these insubordinations, these holes in
the fabric of capital are already very big. The only way in which we can
think of revolution is in terms of the extension and multiplication of
these disobediences, of these fissures in capitalist

But refusals aren’t enough by themselves because refusal, by itself —
refusing to sell our labor power — leaves us facing the threat of
starvation. “Refusal to work under capitalist command is difficult to
maintain unless it is accompanied by the development of some sort of
alternative doing.” Such alternative doings include

people occupying factories or schools or clinics and trying to organise
them on a different basis, creating community bakeries or workshops or
gardens, establishing radio stations of resistance, and so on. All these
projects and revolts are limited, inadequate and contradictory (as they
must be in a capitalist context), but it is difficult to see how we can
create an emancipated doing other than in this interstitial form,
through a process of interweaving the different struggles against doing
work, knitting together the different doings in-and-against-and-beyond

…The emancipation of doing is the movement of anti-fetishisation, the
recovery of creativity. Only in this way can the fissures become poles
of attraction instead of ghettos, and only if they are poles of
attraction can they expand and multiply.

Stop making capitalism: refuse. But this involves a second moment: do
something else instead. This something else is a prefiguration, the
embryo of a society yet to be born. To what extent can this embryo grow
in the womb of existing society?…

Rupture does not mean that capitalism vanishes. The fissures do not mean
that capitalism disappears. But rather than think of revolution as an
event that will happen in the future (who knows when) and be relatively
quick, it seems better to think of it as a process that is already under
way and may take some time, precisely because revolution cannot be
separated from the creation of an alternative world.

Holloway uses “communising” as a collective term for these rents, holes
and fissures, amounting cumulatively to something very like the
commons-based counter-economy Massimo De Angelis (see below) envisions.

Communising not just as verb but in the plural: communisings. The
flowing of many babbling brooks and silent streams,coming together,
parting again, flowing toward a potential sea….

Not communism-in-the-future but a multiplicity of communisings here and
now. Does this mean that there can be no radical break with capitalism?
Certainly not. We have to break the dynamic of capital, but the way to
do it is not by projecting a communism into the future but by
recognising, expanding, and multiplying the communisings (or cracks in
the texture of capitalist domination) and fomenting their influence. It
is hard for me to imagine the overcoming of capitalism other than
through the confluence of communisings into a torrent that marginalises
capital as a form of organisation and renders its violence

Holloway pointed out, in an earlier quote, that while capitalism could
be destroyed by a universal mass strike, such a strike is not feasible.
But as he suggests here, the changing correlation of forces between
capitalism and the ecosystem of interstitial alternatives we are
building creates a state of affairs in which the success of such rutural
efforts may become more likely.

As the commons-based counter-economy gradually grows and progressively
greater shares of both effort and consumption are withdrawn from the
sphere of commodity exchange and accumulation, we gradually achieve
larger and larger amounts of slack, and the ability to walk away from
the table for longer periods of time; at the same time, as the sphere of
society in service to capitalism’s accumulation imperative shrinks,
capitalism becomes increasingly fragile to shocks. And as participants
in the successor system, on their side, obtain more resources and slack
and space as a margin against short-term vulnerability, they will
inevitably be emboldened to inflict more, more frequent, and larger
shocks on capitalism at the very time it becomes more vulnerable to

The universal strike is far from the only large-scale shock to which
capitalism is vulnerable. For example as capitalism becomes increasingly
dependent on credit expansion, investment bubbles and the FIRE economy
for maintaining aggregate demand, it becomes to that extent vulnerable
to other mass actions like debt strikes by the population of the
imperial core, and coordinated national debt defaults by debtor nations
of the Global South. And in an era of distributed, just-in-time
capitalism, even partial labor strikes against key nodes in the logistic
system can have mass disruptive effects far beyond their immediate

Like Federici, Massimo De Angelis not only treats interstitial,
commons-based development as the basis for constructing post-capitalist
society, but he explicitly distinguishes his approach from Negri’s

Thus, despite a common root in the theoretical milieu of what has been
called autonomist Marxism, there is a difference between, say, a
politics that looks to the ‘creative,’ ‘immaterial’ workers almost as
the ‘vanguard’ of the revolution and those like myself who look instead
to the Zapatistas and other similar commoners, especially the
indigenous, the peasants, the just-in-time factory workers in the ‘free
trade zones’ of the third world, the peasant mothers, the slum
communities struggling in a variety of contexts for livelihoods and

Although he refers to it as “traditional Marxism” in general, his
critique applies specifically to Negri’s and Hardt’s version of

To simplify, the narrative goes something like this: before
capitalism there are enclosures or ‘primitive accumulation’.
These processes of expropriation are preconditions of capitalism,
because they create and develop markets for commodities such as labour
power and land. Once the job is done, we can stop talking about
enclosures (or primitive accumulation) and must instead talk about
‘capital logic’. ‘Primitive accumulation’ and ‘capital logic’ are thus
distinctly separated, and therefore become the subject matter of two
distinct Marxist disciplines….

In this [i.e. the real] world, enclosures are a value practice that
clashes with others. It is either capital that makes the world through
commodification and enclosures
, or it is the rest of us — whoever is
that ‘us’ — that makes the world through counter-enclosures and commons.
The net results of the clashes among these social forces and their
corresponding value practices Marx calls ‘class struggle’…

…The ongoing struggles for commons within the current global justice
and solidarity movement are… not appreciated for what they are:
budding alternatives to capital. Marxian-inspired thinking cannot join
the intellectual and political endeavours to shape alternatives in the
here and now because its framework is for another ‘ism’ projected into
an unqualified future, and generally defined by a model of power that
needs a political elite to tell the rest of us why power cannot be
exercised from the ground up, starting from the now. Thus, while current
movements around the world are practising, producing and fighting for a
variety of different commons… traditional Marxist theoreticians cannot
conceptualise these movements in terms of categories familiar to them.
They thus endeavour to reduce these movements to those familiar
categories, and when they do that, their contribution to the rich debate
on alternatives is poor indeed, of the type: ‘one solution,

For De Angelis the establishment of the precondition of capitalism — the
separation of workers from their means of production — is not a one-time
process in the founding era of capitalism, but an ongoing process by
which commons are continually enclosed. And it is a contested process in
which subject populations resist enclosure of their commons, and create
and expand new commons as bases of resistance. From this
it follows that the separation of workers from their means of production
is never complete, but only a matter of degree; and from this it
follows, further, that at any given time there is a correlation of
forces of production between those owned by capitalists and incorporated
into the expansionary circuit of capital, and those in the social
economy or commons which are engaged in direct production for use
outside the cash nexus.

As for the role of the commons in De Angelis’s own vision, he sees them
as a “means of access to social resources independently from
disciplinary markets. In other words, we need to extend the realm of
commons in more and more spheres of our social doing…, to reduce the
level of dependence on the markets and run our lives as free social

He refers, in language much like David Graeber’s “everyday anarchism,”
to the “non-capitalism of our lives”:

the spheres of relations, value practices, affects as well as forms of
power relations, conflict and mutual aid that we constitute beyond
capitalist relations of production, perhaps within its reach, but yet
constituted in different modes and therefore articulated by different
value practices.

Commons-based counter-institutions are a barrier to the expansion and
valorization of capital, and an impediment to its imperative to
accumulation. If they can be coalesced and expanded as a coherent
counter-system at the expense of capital, or even halt its growth, it
will amount to ring-barking the tree of capitalism and causing its
eventual decay and collapse. Building the commons starves expansionary
capital of oxygen, removes resources from it, and deploys those
resources to building a system under our control

This struggle is class struggle in so far as the social forces guided
by non-monetary values posit themselves as limits, in given contexts and
conditions, to capital’s accumulation, to the pursuit and accumulation
of monetary value at whatever scale of social action.

…Unless the different value practices posited by these movements are
able to weave themselves into self-sustaining social feedback processes
that are alternative to the parametric centre of capital’s value
mechanism and its corresponding mode of relations, these struggles risk
being either repressed or assimilated into capitalism’s evolving forms.
We need to work through a politics of value that problematises
strategically how we sustain new social relations of production, new
value practices through which we reproduce our individual livelihoods
and their articulation, vis-a-vis the value practices of capital that,
through enclosures and a pointless competitive rat race, reproduce
scarcity while we could be celebrating abundance….

Indeed, in order to be subsumable, struggles must to some extent be
dispersed across the social field, because their dispersion and relative
isolation facilitates their integration into capitalist markets. If
struggles circulate and coagulate, there emerges a political
recomposition that is able to articulate all these values opposing
capital’s value, to sustain them, to give force to their constitutive
action as a new mode of relations, an absolute limit to capital
in that it is a limit to the production of its value.

In a subsequent work, Omnia Sunt Communia, he ties his hopeful vision
of a post-capitalist future constructed on the commons together with the
promise of the wave of horizontalist movements that occurred since The
Beginning of History

[I]n the last few years we have witnessed several cases of alignment of
social movements to the commons, a commons which offers great

…I believe there is a social revolution in the making that, if
recognised and able to attract more energies from people around the
world, could give us a chance to embark on a process of transformation
towards postcapitalist society. My underlying conception of revolution
is aligned to that of Marx which sees social revolutions — that is, the
growth of alternative modes of production — as the material condition
for any political revolution. A radical transformation of our world
implies that people come together into communities that develop these
alternatives to the logic of capitalism, multiply them and interconnect
them: I understand commons to be such alternatives.

A huge portion of our lives takes place within the commons, particularly
those social functions involving the reproduction of labor power and of
the larger social fabric.

We are generally born into a commons, even if it only consists of
interactions with our parents or carers, siblings and friends…. Values
practices, such as loyalty to friends, conviviality, mutual aid, care,
and even struggles, are developed in the commons….

As soon as these networks of social cooperation develop into systemic
patterns in neighborhood associations, cooperatives, social centres,
food networks and social movements (and given the development of
communication and information technologies), these commons-based forms
of social cooperation have the potential to expand and reshape their
boundaries… and give rise to commons ecologies, that is, plural and
cooperating commons with institutions and arrangements we cannot

He advocates a synergy between the commons and the new horizontalist
social movements, such that

…they are weaved [sic] in virtuous cycles with their own task: the
social movement to shift the subjective and objective constraints set in
place by state and capital, and the commons to expand in this new space
with new commons-based modes of production.

The strategic problem faced by postcapitalist commons is… how to
extend the boundaries of their operations, through development, boundary
commons and commons ecologies [i.e. uniting commons into larger
interconnected systems], to include the ecological and capitalist
systems with which they interrelate.

He argues that the most critical area of expansion of the commons is
“all those activities that serve the immediate purpose of reproducing
life….” like “accessing healthy food, housing, water, social care and

How can commonwealth be used to create a new commons system, one that
increases the incidence of alternative modes of production, and
increases the independence of commoners from capitalist systems…? How
can commonwealth be used in order to increase the power of the commons
vis-a-vis capital?… Capital can reproduce itself only by putting to work
the physical, mental, and affective energies of people for its own
purpose: accumulation…. But the one thing upon which the power of
capital is ultimately based, the one thing that enables it to deploy all
the other means of its power, is… its ability to control, manage,
distribute and shape the meaning of resources that are directly
responsible for sustaining human and social life: water, land, food,
energy, health, housing, care and education and their interrelated
cultures in the first place. An increased ability to govern collectively
these resources, to democratise their reproduction, to commonalise them
by keeping state and market at bay, are conditions for emancipation for
all in all other spheres of life and for make [sic] these spheres of
life into a type of commonwealth that is enabled to feel a distance from
capital…. To have access to these resources would allow people and
communities not only to grow more resilient, to share conviviality and
enjoy life, but to build a common social force to expand their power
vis-a-vis capital….

In summary, commons that make use of the commonwealth more directly
linked to (re)production of bodies and the earth is a condition for the
expansion of commoners’ empowerment vis-a-vis capital, and a condition
of the reduction of the degree of dependence on capital markets…. It
corresponds to the development of a sphere of autonomy from

This fundamental stratum of commons would, in turn, “form the material
basis of a new commons renaissance in many spheres, building its
foundation on these reproductive commons.”

This is because not only would they give us the benefit of new
communities, new cultures, and new methods of establishing wellbeing,
security and trust within complex organisation, they would also protect
us from the whims of financial markets, and especially, increase our
security and power to refuse the exploitation of capitalist markets. The
more that capital can blackmail us into poorer conditions, higher
insecurity and ever-more gruelling work rhythms, the less we have the
power to refuse its logic. Conversely, this power grows the more we have
alternative means for our reproduction.

The Parliamentary Enclosures of common pasture, wood, and waste in the
UK were carried out to facilitate the kind of blackmail De Angelis
writes of; they were motivated by the fact that independent access to
the means of subsistence enabled labor to accept or refuse wage labor on
its own terms. In the propertied classes’ press of the late 18th century
capitalist farmers complained that, because of access to subsistence
from pasturing livestock on the commons, gathering food and firewood
from common woodland, and the possibility of the landless cottaging on
the waste, the rural laboring classes only felt the need to work for
wages intermittently. Because of their ability to fall back on the
commons, they could not be forced to work as long or as hard as their
employers wished.

For De Angelis, the circuit of capital coexists alongside a
complementary circuit of the commons.

…C-M-C describes not only the general metabolism of the reproduction
of labour-power, but also the circuit of production of commodities
involving self-employed, petty producers, craft people, small organic
farmers, reclaimed factories, water associations and so on, as they
bring their commodities to the market and couple their system circuits
based on needs to the economy…. The point is that unlike the capital
circuit, the simple commodity circuit is just a means… to the structure
of needs and desires and the resources that can be mobilised in
non-commoditised forms (through for example pooling, gift circuits or
administrative transfers).

In this sense, the commodities in C-M-C circuits are a moment of a
social process of production that runs parallel to and is socially
integrated with, in specific forms and modes of coordination, a
non-commodity production.

The commons circuit’s analog to capital’s expansionary circuit (closely
parallel to Negri’s concept of working class self-valorization, as
Cleaver interprets it) is “boundary commoning.” As more
activities and sources of sustenance are incorporated into the commons
on a non-commodity basis, and the necessary inputs of those activities
in turn are recursively incorporated, the boundary between circuits
shifts in favor of the commons circuit and incorporates a larger share
of society, the balance of power shifts from the capital circuit to the
commons circuit and the commons has increasing say over the terms on
which it interfaces with the capital circuit.

This parallels the writing of Jane Jacobs and Karl Hess on import
substitution — in both cases starting with repair, gradually expanding
piecemeal via the production of selected spare parts, progressing to
filling in gaps in supply chains, and culminating in the production of
entire ecosystems of goods — as a way of achieving community.

Through commoning, the commons not only can develop new forms of social
cooperation with other commons to meet new needs, or increase the
non-commodity… diversity of its resources…, it can also establish new
markets (such as participatory guarantees or some aspects of fair
trade), and bring to the markets goods that fill an old need in new
ways, with attention to environmental issues, producer pay, quality or
minimisation of distance travelled of goods. Commoning also produces
local supply chains to reduce the dependence of an area on capitalist
commodities and revitalise a local economy. Commoning can thus
organically articulate existing skills and resources over a territory,
helping a depressed region to realise the wealth that resides hidden
with it.

De Angelis denounces the “fallacy of the political,” which sees radical
change as an abrupt process brought about through the seizure of
political power. Rather, it is a long-term process that involves “the
actual production of another form of power” by building commonwealth
over time and expanding it at the expense of the capital circuit.

This conception obviously implies that for a historically defined
period, both commons and capital/state cohabit the social space, their
struggles and relative powers giving shape to it, with the result that
unevenness and contradictions are many, as well as strategic games to
colonise the other’s space with one’s own values and decolonise one’s
own space from the other’s values. The struggle is therefore

He calls for a social revolution based on the “multiplication of
existing commons,” and “coming together and interlacing of the different
commons so as to leverage social powers and constitute ecology and
scale” and “growing commons powers vis-a-vis capital and the

The process of social revolution is ultimately a process of finding
solutions to the problems that capital systems cannot solve…. This
implies the establishment of multi-scalar systems of social action that
reproduce life in modes, systemic processes, social relations and value
practices that seek an alternative path from the dominant ones and that
are able to reproduce at greater scale through networking and

…The effect of a significant number of commons ecologies in a single
area is intense: it produces a new culture, norms, networks of support
and mutual aid, virtuous neighborhoods and villages. For sustained
social change to occur, commons ecologies need to develop and intensify
their presence in social space up to a point where they present a viable
alternative for most people. This point is the point of critical

“Territorialisation” — building up an interlinked ecology of commons,
and particularly those involving survival and subsistence, in
recuperated areas—is especially important.

I suggest we should take Marx’s warning about radical transformation
beyond capitalism seriously, when he says in Grundrisse that if we do
not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of
production and the corresponding relations prerequisite for a classless
society, then all attempts to explode it would be

Similarly, Bengi Akbulut argues that the multiplication and
interconnection of commons serves as a buffer, making the need to sell
one’s labor on the capitalists’ terms less pressing and immediate.

A congelation of alternative economies (such as
cooperatives/collectives) would offer concrete pathways of solidarity
and mutual support by relieving the pressure of market competition,
acquiring start-up capital or securing inputs. It would thus provide a
leeway, so to speak, to keep alternative economic organizations afloat
in times of economic hardship or unexpected expenses.

The corollary is that the formation of the successor society will be an
open-ended process, not the blueprint of any vanguard leadership, and
its form will emerge from the self-creation of the commoners as creative

It is only when a class of social subjects emerges out of a new mode of
production that they helped to shape, sustain and develop that there
emerges a new social force to contrast with capital and the state, to
deeply transform them, even to commonise them and abolish their worst
aspects. Thus the class for itself that Marx contrasts with the class
in itself defined by capitalist exploitation, is the class of
struggling commoners, the new subjectivity empowered by the new
ecology of social systems they have set in place and intertwined: the

De Angelis sees a cybernetic principle called Ashby’s Law, or the Law of
Requisite Variety (“in order to have a system under the control of a
regulator, the variety of the regulator must match the variety of the
system”; “the greater the variety of the system in relation to the
regulator, the greater is the need of the regulator to reduce the
system’s variety or increase its own variety”) as both a source of hope
and a strategy for victory.

State regulations like health and safety rules are often a means by
which capital artificially simplifies society by suppressing the
commons, either by imposing administrative costs and technically
unnecessary capital outlays on the commons that small-scale production
cannot absorb, or forcing it into illegality and thereby marginalizing
it. For example: “Different households are discouraged from trusting
each other when they cannot share at a school party their cakes and
biscuits made at home, but instead have to show that they have purchased
the product.” Likewise organic certification regimes with such high
costs that only relatively large producers can afford them, effectively
keeping small producers from legally using the “organic” label. The
commons sector has in some cases responded by devising its own
certification regimes enforced along Ostromite lines by the participants
themselves, although the formal legality of such practices varies from
location to location and the attitudes of local political authorities.

To achieve victory the commons sector must increase its internal
capacity to self-regulate, while overloading its variety relative to the
regulator in order to overload the latter with information, so that “the
state/capital regulator… is left with the increasingly impossible task
of matching society’s variety in order to regulate.”

I would add that a self-governed system’s regulatory capacity is
inherently greater in variety relative to the internal matter to be
regulated because the complexity and enforcement costs of regulation are
directly proportional to the conflict of interest between regulators and

In addition, new technologies of decentralized and small-scale
production that make the commons increasingly efficient relative to
state and capital also have the effect of increasing the complexity of
the commons relative to state regulators. For example, the enforcement
of industrial patents traditionally assumed very low transaction costs
because most production was carried out by a few large manufacturing
corporations, consisted of a few major variations in product design, and
was marketed through a handful of major retail chains served by a
centralized distribution network. When the product ecology expands by
orders of magnitude to include a whole host of open-source designs or
pirated proprietary ones available as CAD-CAM files on a
micro-manufacturing version of The Pirate Bay, and they’re produced for
neighborhood consumption by hundreds of thousands of garage factories
run by workers cooperatives of a few people each, the transaction costs
of enforcement become astronomical.

Finally, in the event that state and corporation attempt to render the
commons more governable by forcibly simplifying them (making them more
legible, in James Scott’s terminology), the enforcement of such measures
is itself a form of regulation that can be thwarted by making the task
of enforcement more complicated than the regulators can cope with (in
particular, technologies of evasion or circumvention like encryption).

The disruptive effect on the regulator’s ability to cope with complexity
can be greatly intensified, as well, when commons-based social movements
engage in the kinds of leaderless swarming or saturation attacks
described by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt in their work on networked

If commons movements become the expression of a political recomposition
that is one with a mode of production to expand, to develop and to set
against the dominant mode of production, then we have acquired a common
sense-horizon, not one that establishes a future model, but a present
organisational unit that seeks to evolve and have a place in the
contemporary cosmopolitan and globalised world because its power resides
in diversity, variety and complexity….

A society is in movement because a large part of it is constituting
itself in terms of a growing web of interactive commons, capable of
sustaining livelihoods… and of deploying its social force not only to
resist enclosures but to sustain and expand its commons. In short,
emancipatory social transformation is predicated not only on increasing
complexity, but also on the multiplication of commons governing such a

Like De Angelis, Nick Dyer-Witheford proposes a strategy of interstitial
development based on the commons, with an entire ecosystem of
counter-institutions coalescing into a successor system (what he calls
the “circulation of commons”) on De Angelis’s boundary commoning model.

Let’s suppose that a publicly-funded education institution (social
commons) produces software and networks that are available to an open
source collective (networked commons), which creates free software used
by an agricultural cooperative to track its use of water and electricity
(ecological commons). This is a micro model of the circulation of the

This is a concept of the common that is not defensive, not limited to
fending off the depredations of capital on ever-diminishing collective
space. Rather it is aggressive and expansive: proliferating,
self-strengthening and diversifying. It is also a concept of
heterogeneous collectivity, built from multiple forms of a shared logic,
a commons of singularities…. It is through the linkages and
bootstrapped expansions of these commons that commonism emerges.

This concept has a clear affinity with the movements of solidarity
economics that emerged from Latin America and are now gaining increasing
attention in North America and Europe. Broadly defined, these aim to
link self-managed and worker-owned collectives, cooperative financial
organisations and socially-responsible consumption practices to create
expanding economic networks whose surpluses are invested in social and
ecological regeneration. Euclides Mance, one of the theorists of the
movement, writes of such ‘socially based cooperation networks’
reinforcing their component parts until ‘progressive boosting’ enables
them to move from a ‘secondary, palliative or complementary sphere of
activity’ to become a ‘socially hegemonic mode of production’. This type
of activity… seems to resemble the sort of cell-growth of commons
envisaged here….

Although his focus is on interstitial development, like Erik Olin Wright
and others he sees it as not excluding a parallel strategy of
non-reformist reforms.

In my view… a commonist project would gain coherence and focus by
agreement on a set of high level demands to be advanced… at the
national and international level, demands that could be supported by
many movements even as they pursue other more local and specific
struggles and projects. These demands might include some briefly
discussed here: for example, a guaranteed global livelihood,
carbon-emission rationing and adoption of free and open-source software
in public institutions.

Such demands would be radical but not, in a negative sense, utopian.
Success would not mean we had won: it is conceivable that capitalism
could persist with these provisions, although they would represent a
planetary ‘New Deal’ of major proportions. But achieving them would
mean, first, that the movement of movements had won something, averting
harms to, and bestowing benefits on millions; and, second, it would mean
that we were winning: these altered conditions would create
opportunities for new collective projects and waves of organising that
could effect deeper transformations, and the institutions of new

Elsewhere he defines the circulation of commons as the process in which
“eco-social labour and networked commons each reinforce and enable the
other: in which the common goods and services generated by associations
at one point in the circuit provide inputs and resources for
associations at another.”

Writing with Greig de Peuter, he repeats his call — which we saw above —
for “the circulation of the common.”

…From the perspective of cultivating economic autonomy, the
development of links within the cooperative sector itself is of great
significance. The sixth principle in the Statement of Cooperative
Identity is “cooperation among cooperatives” — an ethos of mutual aid
that encourages individual coops to support one another and contribute
to the development of a parallel economy through practices of
inter-cooperation. In this way, coops would reduce their dependence on,
and seek to gain autonomy from, conventional capitalist enterprises….

In addition to the formation of coop associations (e.g. International
Cooperative Alliance), one possible manifestation of cooperation among
cooperatives is inter-cooperative sourcing — the sourcing of products
and services from other coops…. These are examples of a “cooperative
economy,” in which an objective is “the creation of a social structure
capable of supplanting … profit-making industry….”

Another example of inter-coop cooperation is the development of means of
financing for coops. Under-capitalization is a chronic problem in the
coop sector; this explains the disproportionate number of worker-coops
in lines of business that are often more labour intensive rather than
capital intensive. Credit unions are hence of strategic importance in
the development of a cooperative sub-system….

There are also examples of coops and associations based in the North
establishing education programs where groups of people visit the South
and aid communities in setting up coops, as an approach to cooperative
international development….

Practices of cooperation among coops suggest the possibility that within
the overall global system of capital a non-capitalist sub-system might
grow its counter-power, reduce reliance on the primary system, and
potentially render it redundant. In inter-coop cooperation we see at
least a nascent possibility of how the social product of the labour
commons can contribute to the expansion of a new system which seeks to
continually enlarge its autonomy.

For example, “Brazil’s solidarity economy system… arises from
movements of workers and landless peasants, infused by liberation
theology traditions, and by the history of quilombos (self-governing
communities) of escaped slaves.”

Strongest in agricultural production, the sector also includes
industrial, service, and software components. It links workers
cooperatives and self-managed enterprises with alternative financial
institutions, consumer cooperatives, and fair trade systems in an
attempt to create a self-reinforcing network of economic activities in
which participants’ activities are informed by an ethical and political
sense of shared social responsibilities. The units of these networks are
conceived not just as individually following principles of social and
environmental justice, but providing inputs for each other, to create an
inter-cooperative, self-expanding system.

Because of its stigmergic, modular architecture, Negri argues, the
circulation of commons model has advantages of low overhead and agility
for outcompeting the capitalist system within whose bowels it is
growing. For the same reason, it is something that can develop gradually
without requiring an all-or-nothing transition.

…[W]e can start to build it now. Such a project need not predicate an
instant abolition of the market, only the transformation from central
system to a sub-system, surrounded by, and subordinated to a more
powerful ‘commons’ dynamics…. This does not preclude a punctual moment
or moments of radical crisis. It suggests that the circulation of the
commons have to precede such a moment, to establish its preconditions,
and extend beyond it, to actualize its potential.

Finally, his strategy of engaging with the state — a subject we will
address in more depth in a later chapter — involves pushing in the
direction of something like a Partner State: “Zizek is correct when he
says the true task is neither to take over the state, nor to smash the
state, but to ‘make the state itself work in a non-statal mode’ — as a
machine for incubating and growing commons.”

And of course engagement with the state does not alter the secondary
character of such engagement.

This is not necessarily a model of changing the world without seizing
power. The role of the state in co-management initiatives, such of those
of the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments we noted earlier, may be
vital in allowing the circulation of commons to attain a critical mass.
Our concept does, however, suggest that growth and interconnection of
the commons have to precede such state interventions, to prefiguratively
establish the necessary preconditions. It must also grow beyond the
moment of such direct interventions, in a proliferation of self-starting
components that exceeds centralized control. In this sense, the idea of
the circulation of the commons is a concept from and for the Marxian
tradition of autonomous free association.

J.K. Gibson-Graham (actually a composite of Katherine Gibson and Julie
Graham) are another significant contributor to this tradition. Their
book A Postcapitalist Politics, in particular, is a full-scale,
head-on assault and demolition of what vulgar Marxists call “historical
materialism” — as well as on similar approaches by
left-accelerationists. They took the successes of second-wave feminism
as a model in their human- and agency-focused analysis of economic

The achievements of second-wave feminism provide, for us, the impetus
for theorizing a new global form of economic politics. Its remapping of
political space and possibility suggests the ever-present opportunity
for local transformation that does not require (though it does not
preclude and indeed promotes) transformation at larger scales. Its focus
on the subject prompts us to think about ways of cultivating economic
subjects with different desires and capacities and greater openness to
change and uncertainty. Its practice of seeing and speaking differently
encourages us to make visible the hidden and alternative economic
activities that everywhere abound, and to connect them through a
language of economic difference. If we can begin to see noncapitalist
activities as prevalent and viable, we may be encouraged here and now to
actively build on them to transform our local economies.

In the realm of economic struggle, “[l]ocally based social movement
interventions all over the world” (e.g. slum dwellers movements,
community-based enterprises, and other movements “spearheaded by the
poor themselves”) “are already embodying many of the features of the
political imaginary we have been tracing, building new economic futures
within a clearly enunciated commitment to a politics of

Their approach is the direct opposite of the vulgar Marxist self-parody
version of “historical materialism,” which they characterize as

a historical stage theory of economic evolution in which capitalism is
situated at the pinnacle of development and all other forms of economy
are represented as precapitalist or as forms of primitive capitalism.
For the remnant true believers, communism, capitalism’s other, is posed
as a future utopia, yet to be realized in any concreteness, while
capitalism remains the present, fully developed form of

This vulgar Marxist approach, accordingly, puts its focus on political
action to achieve postcapitalist transition almost entirely at the
systemic level (“a global-scale apparatus of power that must be
addressed and transformed before [local struggles’] activities can
succeed or be extended”).

Gibson-Graham, in contrast, see transition as the outgrowth of millions
of local actions. Like Holloway, they stress the
complexity and open-endedness of reality and the contested nature of
capital’s self-reproduction process, and dismiss the idea of capitalism
as a totalizing system which must inevitably coopt any attempts at
building a postcapitalist society “before the Revolution.” Instead they
propose a “weak theory” that

couldn’t know that social experiments are already coopted and thus
doomed to fail or to reinforce dominance; it couldn’t tell us that the
world economy will be transformed by an international revolutionary
movement rather than through the disorganized proliferation of local

Rather than seeing present-day society as a hegemonic capitalist system
that incorporates and coopts all attempts at non-capitalist
construction, they see it as a “landscape of economic difference,
populated by various capitalist and noncapitalist institutions and

In their approach to local organizing, they use an iceberg to illustrate
the majority of total production that is not commodity production by
wage labor within capitalist firms. The latter is represented by the
portion of the iceberg above the water line. Below the water is a much
larger portion consisting of productive activity within schools, on the
street, in neighborhoods, within families, unpaid, in church/temple, the
retired, between friends, gifts, self-employment, volunteer, barter,
moonlighting, children, informal lending, not for market, illegal, not
monetized, self-provisioning, under-the-table, producer cooperatives,
consumer cooperatives, and non-capitalist firms….

By marshaling the many ways that social wealth is produced, transacted,
and distributed other than those traditionally associated with
capitalism, noncapitalism is rendered a positive multiplicity rather
than an empty negativity, and capitalism becomes just one particular set
of economic relations situated in a vast sea of economic

They take child care as an example of “reading for difference”; the
function is performed by a large range of commodified and
non-commodified, capitalist and non-capitalist, formal and informal,
etc., actors. A conventional Marxist emphasizing capitalism as a
totalizing system would treat the informal, non-waged forms of child
care as simply being coopted into the capitalist function of reproducing
labor-power. But they note that they’re part of an informal economy that
exists alongside capitalism and reproduces itself for its own purposes
as well as to some extent reproducing labor power for
capital. I would argue, in addition, that the actual
role of reproductive activities in the informal sector — whether it
serves primarily itself or capital — depends on a shifting balance of
power between the commons and capitalism. The commons can be coopted to
create a positive externality for capital, but it can also serve as a
base of independence that increases our bargaining power against

To follow through with the project of constructing a counterhegemonic
politics…, we need to identify an alternative fixing of economic
identity around a new nodal point…. [O]ur concern for creating an
environment for the cultivation of new economic subjects leads us on to
tentatively propose the community economy as an

The community economy is basically a way to take all the different forms
of production in the non-capitalist, underwater portion of the iceberg
mentioned above, and “multiply, amplify, and connect” them as a
counterhegemonic alternative to capitalism. Given the
wide array of non-capitalist ways of meeting needs already in existence,
their approach is one of “starting with what is at hand to begin to
replenish and enlarge the commons…”

A full audit of livelihood practices, including the contribution of
nonmarket transactions and unpaid labor, allows for reflection on what
the community is nourished by (rather than what it lacks) and for public
discussion of which of these practices could be strengthened or

Some of their research projects in creating community subjectivity
involved encouraging a change in local perceptions of the economy,
including a shift in focus to all the non-capitalist economic activities
in the submerged part of the iceberg, and “mapping” those activities to
create awareness of just what resources were available to a community
economy outside the control of capital.

One of the goals of the action research projects was to flesh out,
through a community inventory, a diverse economy in which capitalist
enterprises, formal wage labor, and market transactions occupy only the
visible tip of the economic iceberg…. By giving a place in the diverse
economy to activities that are often ignored (collective enterprises,
household and voluntary labor, transactions involving barter, sharing
and gift giving, and so forth), we hoped to refigure the identity and
capacities of the regional economy. And by recognizing the particularity
of people’s economic involvements, including their multiple economic
identities (in addition to being unemployed with respect to capitalist
employment, for example, a person can be employed in household,
neighborhood, and other noncapitalist activities), we were attempting to
reframe the identities and capacities of individuals. We undertook
slightly different reframing exercises in each site, but central to each
exercise was the involvement of community researchers. Initially it was
they who were the subjects of reframing within a new discourse of
economy and region.

This was followed up by “a brainstorming session to imagine the
community-based projects they could be interested in building,”
resulting in the suggestion of almost fifty ideas for “actual activities
that might be undertaken by newly authorized subjects of the community
economy.” These included, among many things, tool
libraries, repair shops, assorted forms of craft and small shop
production, community gardens, seed banks, rainwater harvesting systems,
and free schooling arrangements that connected would-be pupils with
those who had things to teach.

The result in one community (Monash, a former one-industry region in
Australia abandoned by its main state-capitalist employer), was a shift
from a sense of powerlessness in the face of a totalizing entity called
“the Economy” that was run by “them,” to a gradually developing sense of
agency and empowerment as they employed their large inventory of
resources and skills outside the capitalist system.

Note on Synthesis. Again, if we strip away Negri’s
framing of capitalism as a completed and universal system, and his
excessive focus on the technical and information workers as a
quasi-vanguard or core of the Multitude, his treatment of the
progressive dematerialization of production and the possibility of
cutting capital out of it is actually quite relevant to the
commons-based interstitial models of Federici, De Angelis et al.
Dematerialization, arguably, can be applied not only to the growing role
of information and coordination as a source of productivity, but also to
the cheapening and ephemeralization of physical production technology we
considered in Chapter Two. This development makes high-tech, small-scale
direct production for use in the commons increasingly feasible. So
dematerialization not only makes possible worker control of existing
production within the sphere of capital, but also shifting a great
deal of production from the sphere of capital and into the sphere of
the commons.

The Broader Interstitial Milieu. Although I’ve focused on autonomism
so far, autonomism is only one part of a much broader milieu of
movements that share an interstitial approach. It’s commonly associated
with the Wobbly slogan, from the Preamble to the I.W.W. Constitution,
“forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

The term “interstitial strategies” itself — as opposed to “ruptural
strategies” — was coined by Erik Olin Wright. (In Wright’s schema the
interstitial strategy is one of two “metamorphic” strategies; the other
metamorphic strategy is “symbiotic,” which envisions treating the state
as terrain for struggle “in which the possibility exists of USING THE
STATE to build social power both within the state itself and in other
sites of power.”

In ruptural strategies, “classes organized through political parties
are the primary actors, and the goal is seizure of state power by a
frontal attack on the state” in order to transcend capitalism through
state policy.

Interstitial strategies “operate outside the state and try as much as
possible to avoid confrontations with state power.”

The core idea is to build counter-hegemonic institutions in society.
There might be contexts in which struggles against the state could be
required to create or defend these spaces, but the core of the strategy
is to work outside the state.

Rather than being brought about by a sharp revolutionary break followed
by state-driven transformation, interstitial transition is “more like a
complex ecological system in which one kind of organism initially gains
a foothold in a niche but eventually out-competes rivals for food
sources and so comes to dominate the wider environment.”

Like other theorists considered earlier in this chapter, Wright mentions
the transition from feudalism to capitalism as an example of
interstitial transformation. He mentions the reference to “forming the
structure of the new society within the shell of the old” in the I.W.W.
Preamble and Colin Ward’s statement that “the parts are already at hand”
in Anarchy in Action as examples of interstitialism as a conscious
strategy. He also cites the WSF slogan “another world is possible”:

much of what they have in mind are anarchist-inflected grass-roots
initiatives to create worker and consumer cooperatives, fair-trade
networks, cross-border labor standards campaigns, and other institutions
that directly embody the alternative world they desire in the here and

Although interstitial and symbiotic strategies are conceptually
distinct, and many of the advocates of each disparage the other, Wright
considers them potentially complementary.

These differ primarily in terms of their relationship to the state. Both
envision a trajectory of change that progressively enlarges the social
spaces of social empowerment, but interstitial strategies largely
by-pass the state in pursuing this objective while symbiotic strategies
try to systematically use the state to advance the process of
emancipatory social empowerment. These need not constitute antagonistic
strategies — in many circumstances they complement each other, and
indeed may even require each other.

Even the more insurrectionary anarchist schools, although they pursue
ruptural strategies, differ on average from vulgar Marxists insofar as
they see the revolutionary rupture as the culmination of a previous
interstitial process.

Where they differed sharply was in the belief of what sorts of
transformations were needed within capitalism in order for a
revolutionary rupture to plausibly usher in a genuinely emancipatory
alternative. For Marx, and later for Lenin, the central task of
struggles within capitalism is to forge the collective capacity of a
politically unified working class needed to successfully seize state
power as the necessary condition for overthrowing capitalism. The task
of deep social reconstruction to create the environment for a new way of
life with new principles, new forms of social interaction and
reciprocity, would largely have to wait until “after the revolution.”

For revolutionary anarchists, on the other hand, significant progress in
such reconstruction is not only possible within capitalism, but is a
necessary condition for a sustainable emancipatory rupture with
capitalism. In discussing Proudhon’s views on revolution, Martin Buber

[Proudhon] divined the tragedy of revolutions and came to feel it more
and more deeply in the course of disappointing experiences. Their
tragedy is that as regards their positive goal they will always result
in the exact opposite of what the most honest and passionate
revolutionaries strive for, unless and until this [deep social reform]
has so far taken shape before the revolution that the revolutionary act
has only to wrest the space for it in which it can develop unimpeded.

If we want a revolution to result in a deeply egalitarian, democratic,
and participatory way of life, Buber writes,

the all-important fact is that, in the social as opposed to the
political sphere, revolution is not so much a creative as a delivering
force whose function is to set free and authenticate — i.e. that it can
only perfect, set free, and lend the stamp of authority to something
that has already been foreshadowed in the womb of the pre-revolutionary
society; that, as regards social evolution, the hour of revolution is
not an hour of begetting but an hour of birth – provided there was a
begetting beforehand.

A rupture with capitalism is thus necessary in this strategic vision,
but it requires a deep process of interstitial transformation beforehand
if it is to succeed.

The strategy of seeing contemporary counter-institutions within our own
society as the seeds of the future society is, in part, a rejoinder to
Marx’s dismissal of utopians as “writing recipes for cook-shops of the
future.” As the authors of a book on dual power from the Next System
Project argue:

Karl Marx famously criticized utopians as trying to “write recipes for
the cook-shops of the future.” By this, he meant that utopians imagine
they can design a new society from scratch and bring it into being by
sheer force of will…. By contrast, Marx’s method of analysis grapples
with the complex and dynamic process by which societies change. He
believed that only by carefully examining the social relations,
incentive structures, and class dynamics of a society can we understand
its path going forward. In Marx’s view, every social system is a complex
process rather than a static essence, and each system contains the seeds
of its successor, which need only be encouraged to grow for change to
come about.

In our view, the answer to political change lies between the utopians
and Marx. There is some truth to Marx’s claim that describing a desired
future is a waste of time; devising complex utopias does little to guide
us politically or strategically if it is divorced from the process
through which such ideas could feasibly come about. Yet neither can we
sit by critiquing the current economic and political landscape while we
wait for “inevitable” revolution. The next-system vision spelled out
here can and must be enacted in our communities today as an essential,
intermediate step toward realizing a revolutionary vision for the

The next system is more likely to succeed and endure if we steadily
transform existing institutions, modes of production, and ways of
relating to one another rather than try to conjure up a whole new system
out of thin air…. Filling in the gaps between “scientific” socialist
analysis and utopian imagination, we have attempted something the Left
has always struggled to create: a realistic transition model to a
post-capitalist world.

Further, citing Hannah Arendt’s argument that all political systems
depend on popular cooperation for their survival, and that systems are
ultimately overthrown by the withdrawal of public support, they point
out that counter-institutions are needed to empower such withdrawal.

The understanding that power emerges from collective action, rather than
from force, is a key component of our transitional vision.

As a revolutionary political strategy, however (rather than a mere
description of certain past political events), Arendt’s theory of power
requires several modifications. First, without preexisting mass
organization, the public has no way to collectively withdraw its

Second, most people will never even consider retracting support for
governing institutions if they don’t see viable alternatives…. The
organization of unions, worker-owned firms, and housing cooperatives is
what makes socialism a real, lived possibility around which greater
movement-building can occur.

Third, withdrawal has serious costs. Even absent violent repression (a
feature of even today’s most liberal democracies), we are made dependent
on capitalist and state institutions for access to basic survival needs
and avenues for collective action. Transcending capitalism and the state
thus requires having alternative institutions in place to meet those
needs and organize people to act powerfully in concert with one another.

Fourth, we cannot neglect the preformation of the post-revolutionary
society — the need to actively create institutions to replace the ones
we have now.

In their treatment of the dual power institutions building the future
post-capitalist society, the co-authors focus heavily on the local.

In early stages, crafting the political infrastructure of radical
democracy and libertarian socialism will be mainly local, through
outgrowths and codifications of existing social processes that can be
expanded into mainstream practice and incorporated into a broader
strategy. The community institutions proposed here are modular. They can
stand alone as individual projects, fine-tuned to solve specific
problems created by the current system’s failures, but they are designed
to be organized as a network. By working together and mutually
reinforcing one another, these institutions can qualitatively change the
power relations of a city or neighborhood, and lay the groundwork for
new macro-structures of self-governance and civil society….

Particular institutional arrangements will likely depend on local needs
and conditions, but possibilities include worker-owned cooperatives,
neighborhood councils, community land trusts, local food distribution
systems, mutual aid networks, community-owned energy, popular education
models, time banks, childcare centers, community health clinics, and

The interstitial approach, in which the successor society is an emergent
system coalescing from seeds that develop in the present, differs from
the “recipes” Marx derides (what some might call “bike shedding” today)
in that it treats the development of the future society as an open-ended
process whose details can be left to the future.

Chris Dillow, a Marxist economist in the UK, argues against such
cookshop recipes or bikeshedding from the standpoint of bounded
rationality and unintended consequences, and quotes Erik
Olin Wright on the proper approach. Wright advised against drawing up
detailed blueprints in advance.

What can be worked out are the core organizing
principles of alternatives to existing institutions, the principles that
would guide the pragmatic trial-and-error task of institution-building.
Of course, there will be unintended consequences of various sorts, but
these can be dealt with as they arrive “after the revolution.” The
crucial point is that unintended consequences need not pose a fatal
threat to the emancipatory projects themselves.

David Bollier makes a similar argument for an open-ended approach based
on complexity science:

By the lights of complexity science, stable, successful systems cannot
be constructed in advance by having brilliant minds devise sophisticated
blueprints – the model of God as the absent watchmaker. Rather,
successful systems must evolve organically through the self-organized,
free interplay of adaptive agents which follow simple principles at the
local level. No definitive big-picture knowledge or teleological goals
can be known at the outset. Instead of presuming that an a priori,
comprehensive design system should be followed to produce the best
outcomes, complexity theory takes its cues from biophysical evolution
and asserts that the best results will arise if intelligent, living
agents are allowed to evolve over time toward optimum outcomes in
supportive environments. The schemas or agents that survive and thrive
will be the ones capable of prevailing against competitors and
reproducing; less capable agents will be shunted to niches or die,
according to principles of natural selection….

What results through this process is a higher level of organization
known as emergence. “Living systems always seem to emerge from the
bottom up, from a population of much simpler systems,” writes science
journalist M. Mitchell Waldrop. A mix of proteins, DNA, and other
biomolecules coevolved to produce a cell. Neurons in the brain come
together to produce cognition, emotions, and consciousness. A collection
of ants self-organize themselves into a complex ant colony.

“In the simplest terms,” complexity author Steven Johnson write, complex
systems “solve problems by drawing on masses of relatively stupid
elements, rather than a single, intelligent ‘executive branch.’ They are
bottom-up systems, not top-down. They get their smarts from below.”
Johnson continues: “In these systems, agents residing on one scale start
producing behavior that lies one scale above them: ants create colonies,
urbanites create neighborhoods; simple pattern-recognition software
learns how to recommend new books. The movement from low-level rules to
higher-level sophistication is what we call emergence.”

The agents within any complex adaptive system do not deliberately plan
or create a higher, more sophisticated level of social organization;
they are motivated chiefly by local circumstances and knowledge. And
yet, when the micro-behaviors of agents relying on Vernacular law reach
a critical stage of interconnection and intensity, they actualize new
flows of energy and vision. An emergent new
arises in an almost mysterious

The same theme was tied to the concept of attractor institutions in an
extended Twitter thread by a polymathic leftist who goes by the handle
Yung Neocon. The proper strategy, he argued, was to eliminate the core
axes of extraction in the present system (in his opinion prisons and
private land ownership), set up a handful of “attractor institutions”
around which the new society could crystallize, and then let emergence
do its thing.

A bad faith critic would be inclined to say I am all negative (by
focussing on ending extraction, enclosure, retribution, prisons, and
private land monopoly), but this isn’t fair — I’m simply an
agnostic/pluralist about what the positive post-emancipation project
would be

There are many social systems, when stated in ‘ideal’ terms, I would be
fine living with, for the most part — gift economies, communization,
FALSC, mutualist hobby markets + common ownership, Parecon/Participatory
Planning, cybernetic socialism, council communism, etc.

Would I be comfortable positing any of these as the final state? or
sufficient? or perfect? or superior to the other alternatives presented?
or the only available options? absolutely not on all counts.

I also trust people, and do not think we can, let alone need, to figure
out every detail ahead of time — such arrogant confidence in the ability
to predict, plan, control, and address contingencies, localities,
novelties, etc, is fatal to success & emancipation.

If I were to somewhat mis-use the terminology of complexity & systems, I
think our positive projects are best seen as ‘attractors’ — focal points
around which dynamic systems adapt & to which they tend; catalysts &
resources for action, but not pre-determined outcomes.

On the other hand, it IS really easy to see what in the current world,
and in history, we want destroyed — so, for example, for me these
basically come down, at the end of it, to prisons and private
landownership, two vices which interpenetrate nearly every other….

Thinkers, ranging across eras, disciplines & ideologies as Aristotle,
Ibn-Khaldun, Smith, Darwin, Kropotkin, Hayek, Taleb, Ostrom, Meadows,
Bookchin, Scott, Polanyi, Collins, Sahlins, Ward, Graeber & others,
emphasize complex, evolved, decentralized, organic systems.

These emerge in time & space through slow plodding, tacit knowledge,
learning, trial & error, cooperation, evolution, selection,
internalization, canalization, and so on, without unitary top-down
planners global/universal in time & space….

Perhaps the best explanation of the interstitial strategy comes (again)
from Erik Olin Wright, the person most famously associated with that

It is grounded in the following idea: all socioeconomic systems are
complex mixes of many different kinds of economic structures, relations,
and activities. No economy has ever been — or ever could be — purely
capitalist. Capitalism as a way of organizing economic activity has
three critical components: private ownership of capital; production for
the market for the purpose of making profits; and employment of workers
who do not own the means of production.

Existing economic systems combine capitalism with a whole host of other
ways of organizing the production and distribution of goods and
services: directly by states; within the intimate relations of families
to meet the needs of its members; through community-based networks and
organizations; by cooperatives owned and governed democratically by
their members; though nonprofit market-oriented organizations; through
peer-to-peer networks engaged in collaborative production processes; and
many other possibilities.

Some of these ways of organizing economic activities can be thought of
as hybrids, combining capitalist and noncapitalist elements; some are
entirely noncapitalist; and some are anticapitalist. We call such a
complex economic system “capitalist” when capitalist drives are dominant
in determining the economic conditions of life and access to livelihood
for most people. That dominance is immensely

(We should note here that many Marxists and adherents of other
revolutionary traditions deny that significant non-capitalist elements
can function in a non-capitalist way within a predominantly capitalist
system. They are either coopted or forced into de facto
self-exploitation. So the only way to achieve non-capitalist
alternatives on a significant scale is to overthrow system as a system
all at once. It’s either all or nothing. Wright and other
interstitialists, like Federici and De Angelis and others we discussed
earlier, hold on the contrary that there is an “outside” to capitalism
here and now, that can be built on and expanded and challenge it from
the inside. For them, capitalism is not a total, all-or-nothing system
but something that can change in character over time as non-capitalist
elements develop within it.)

One way to challenge capitalism is to build more democratic,
egalitarian, participatory economic relations in the spaces and cracks
within this complex system wherever possible, and to struggle to expand
and defend those spaces.

The idea of eroding capitalism imagines that these alternatives have the
potential, in the long run, of expanding to the point where capitalism
is displaced from this dominant role.

An analogy with an ecosystem in nature might help clarify this idea.
Think of a lake. A lake consists of water in a landscape, with
particular kinds of soil, terrain, water sources, and climate. An array
of fish and other creatures live in its water, and various kinds of
plants grow in and around it….

In such an ecosystem, it is possible to introduce an alien species of
fish not “naturally” found in the lake. Some alien species will
instantly get gobbled up. Others may survive in some small niche in the
lake, but not change much about daily life in the ecosystem. But
occasionally an alien species may thrive and eventually displace the
dominant species.

The strategic vision of eroding capitalism imagines introducing the most
vigorous varieties of emancipatory species of noncapitalist economic
activity into the ecosystem of capitalism, nurturing their development
by protecting their niches, and figuring out ways of expanding their
habitats. The ultimate hope is that eventually these alien species can
spill out of their narrow niches and transform the character of the
ecosystem as a whole….

[The process of transition from feudalism to capitalism] may have been
punctuated by political upheavals and even revolutions, but rather than
constituting a rupture in economic structures, these political events
served more to ratify and rationalize changes that had already taken
place within the socioeconomic structure.

The strategic vision of eroding capitalism sees the process of
displacing capitalism from its dominant role in the economy in a similar
way: alternative, noncapitalist economic activities emerge in the niches
where this is possible within an economy dominated by capitalism; these
activities grow over time, both spontaneously and, crucially, as a
result of deliberate strategy; struggles involving the state take place,
sometimes to protect these spaces, other times to facilitate new
possibilities; and eventually, these noncapitalist relations and
activities become sufficiently prominent in the lives of individuals and
communities that capitalism can no longer be said to dominate the system
as a whole….

The only hope for an emancipatory alternative to capitalism — an
alternative that embodies ideals of equality, democracy, and solidarity
— is to build it on the ground and work to expand its

[Last edited October 7, 2020]

Chapter Seven: Interstitial Development: Practical Issues

I. Post-1968 (-1994?) Movements

Unlike the old revolutionary movements, the new horizontal movements for
the most part aren’t fighting to capture anything. Richard Gunn and
Adrian Wilding argue that “Occupy is not to be assessed strictly in
terms of… its effect upon government policy,” but rather in terms of
“the alternative public space that it creates and the mutual recognition
between individuals that… it brings into existence….”

This applies not just to Occupy, but more generally to all the
horizontalist movements of the past two decades.

According to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt the EZLN (Zapatista
National Liberation Army) was perhaps the first movement with both feet
— or at least one and a half — firmly planted in the networked world.

The Zapatistas, which were born and primarily remain a peasant and
indigenous movement, use the Internet and communications technologies
not only as a means of distributing their communiques to the outside
world but also… as a structural element inside their organization….
Communication is central to the Zapatistas’ notion of revolution, and
they continually emphasize the need to create horizontal network
organizations rather than vertical centralized structures.

Despite some hat tipping to the old guerrilla army model in their
nomenclature, “their goal has never been to defeat the state and claim
sovereign authority but rather to change the world without taking

Of course even the guerrilla model itself had already undergone some
transformation post-1968:

The most obvious change was that guerrilla movements began to shift from
the countryside to the city, from open spaces to closed ones. The
techniques of guerrilla warfare began to be adapted to the new
conditions of post-Fordist production, in line with information systems
and network structures. Finally as guerrilla warfare increasingly
adopted the characteristics of biopolitical production and spread
throughout the entire fabric of society, it more directly posed as its
goal the production of subjectivity — economic and cultural
subjectivity, both material and immaterial. It was not just a matter of
“winning hearts and minds,” in other words, but rather of creating new
hearts and minds through the construction of new circuits of
communication, new forms of social collaboration, and new modes of
interaction. In this process we can discern a tendency toward moving
beyond the modern guerrilla model toward more democratic network forms
of organization….

The real transformation of guerrilla movements during this period…has
little to do with urban or rural terrain…. The small mobile units and
flexible structures of post-Fordist production correspond to a certain
degree to the polycentric guerrilla model, but the guerrilla model is
immediately transformed by the technologies of post-Fordism. The
networks of information, communication, and cooperation—the primary axes
of post-Fordist production—begin to define the new guerrilla movements.
Not only do the movements employ technologies such as the Internet as
organizing tools, they also begin to adapt these technologies as models
for their own organizational structures.

As John Holloway puts it, Zapatismo’s nature as an “open-ended” movement
“is summed up in the idea that it is a revolution not a Revolution….”

It is a revolution, because the claim to dignity in a society built upon
the negation of dignity can only be met through a radical transformation
of society. But it is not a Revolution in the sense of having some grand
plan, in the sense of a movement designed to bring about the Great Event
that will change the world. Its revolutionary claim lies not in the
preparation for the future Event but in the present inversion of
perspective, in the consistent insistence on seeing the world in terms
that are incompatible with the world as it is: human dignity. Revolution
refers to present existence not to future

This small-r revolution means that “the concept of revolution can no
longer be instrumental.”

Our traditional concept of revolution is as a means to achieve an end,
and we know that in practice this has meant using people as a means to
an end. If dignity is taken as a central principle, then people cannot
be treated as a means: the creation of a society based on dignity can
only take place through the development of social practices based on the
mutual recognition of that dignity. We walk, not in order to arrive at a
promised land, but because the walking itself is the revolution. And if
instrumentalism falls as a way of thinking, so too does the lineal time
that is implicit in the traditional concept of revolution, the clear
distinction between before and after. There is no question of first
revolution, then dignity: dignity itself is the

And once revolution ceases to focus on a big Event like seizure of
power, or ruptural confrontation with capital at some specific future
point in time, what becomes central instead is

the construction of our own world…. This is still class struggle, it is
still confrontation with capital…. But insofar as possible, we seize the
initiative, we seize the agenda…. By making the development of our own
creativity (our own power-to-do) the centre of the movement, capital is
revealed as a parasite, constantly forced to run after

To the extent that the EZLN has carried out governance functions in
liberated portions of Chiapas, it has done so in a prefigurative manner,
including — much like the Black Panthers in Oakland — a robust program
of counter-institution building.

Comandante Hortensia went on to explain how over the past two decades,
they have constructed their own autonomous government, complete with
their own health and education system, based in the indigenous
traditions of their ancestors. Despite the continual efforts of the
“neoliberal bad government” to displace them from their land, the
Zapatistas have successfully recuperated thousands of acres of land on
which they have constructed communities that are governed “from the
bottom up.”

And David Graeber argues that the cycle of struggles from 1994 to the
present had its origins in anarchist praxis.

The very notion of direct action, with its rejection of a politics which
appeals to governments to modify their behaviour, in favour of physical
intervention against state power in a form that itself prefigures an
alternative — all of this emerges directly from the libertarian
tradition. Anarchism is the heart of the movement, its soul; the source
of most of what’s new and hopeful about it.

It was an international network called People’s Global Action, for
example, that put out… the original call for protest against the 1999
WTO meetings in Seattle. And PGA in turn owes its origins to the famous
International Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, which
took place knee-deep in the jungle mud of rainy-season Chiapas, in
August 1996…. People from over 50 countries came streaming into the
Zapatista-held village of La Realidad. The vision for an
‘intercontinental network of resistance’ was laid out in the Second
Declaration of La Realidad: ‘We declare that we will make a collective
network of all our particular struggles and resistances, an
intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism, an
intercontinental network of resistance for humanity’….

This, the Declaration made clear, was ‘not an organizing structure; it
has no central head or decision maker; it has no central command or
hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist.’

Like many of the prefigurative movements that came after it (notably the
alternative economy experiments arising out of Syntagma in Greece),
Argentine horizontalism included lots of grass-roots projects in
building a counter-economy to support some degree of secession and
pursuit of livelihood independent of the capitalist economy. “Projects
range from bakeries and organic gardens, to alternative medicine
clinics, education and schools, to raising animals and taking over land
for housing and food production. Many of the hundreds of recuperated
factories and other workplaces formed horizontal linkages to barter
their respective outputs with one another (for example, a cooperative
clinic providing free healthcare to printing factory workers in return
for free printing of all their material).

There’s been a fundamental shift, in the post-1994 wave of movements,
from what Gramsci called a “war of maneuver” (contesting control of the
“commanding heights” of political and economic institutions) to a “war
of position” (a prolonged process of culture change and
institution-building within civil society with the goal of surrounding
the state as the last bastion of capitalist power). But there’s a major
difference even with Gramsci’s formulation. Gramsci intended the war of
position only to be undertaken as a period of preparation for eventually
storming the bastions of political control. He still saw a War of
Maneuver as the final step; it was just to be postponed until the
cultural sappers had finished their preparatory work.

The new movements see the modes of production and social organization
facilitated by new technologies as opening the possibility for seceding
and building a new society within the interstices of the old one,
without ever attempting a seizure of power. We no longer need the
obsolescent institutions of state and capital. We just need to tear down
their enclosures of the social economy we’ve already built – and that
can be done, to a large extent, by circumvention rather than conquest.

In modern networked organizations — perhaps better called networked
counter-societies — the attacks and resistance against the
enemy are primarily aimed at defending the internal space for
self-organization against attempts at suppression.

Negri and Hardt, in Declaration, likewise see the role of violence in
a ruptural transition as largely in defense of, or ratifying, changes
that have already taken place interstitially. They counsel continuing to
work, “building the new society within the shell of the old,” against
that day.

Even when tempted by despair, we should remember that throughout history
unexpected and unforeseeable events arrive that completely reshuffle the
decks of political powers and possibility. You don’t have to be a
millenarian to believe that such political events will come again. It’s
not just a matter of numbers. One day there are millions in the streets
and nothing changes, and another day the action of a small group can
completely overturn the ruling order. Sometimes the event comes in a
moment of economic and political crisis when people are suffering. Other
times, though, the event arises in times of prosperity when hopes and
aspirations are rising. It’s possible, even in the near future, that the
entire financial structure will come crashing down. Or that debtors will
gain the conviction and courage not to pay their debts. Or that people
will en masse refuse to obey those in power. What will we do then? What
society will we construct?

We can’t know when the event will come. But that doesn’t mean we should
just wait around until it arrives.

They cite Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society, Friedman and the Chicago
School (with their focus on laying the intellectual infrastructure to be
ready to take advantage of a crisis to impose neoliberalism through
Crisis Capitalism) as a positive example for the Left.

This paradoxical task of preparing for an unforeseen event may be the
best way of understanding the work and accomplishments of the cycle of
struggles of 2011. The movements are preparing ground for an event they
cannot foresee or predict. The principles they promote, including
equality, freedom, sustainability, and open access to the common, can
form the scaffolding on which, in the event of a radical social break, a
new society can be built. Moreover, the political practices that the
movements experiment with — assemblies, methods of collective decision
making, mechanisms for not only the protection but also the expression
and participation of minorities, among others — serve as a guide for
future political action. Much more important, though, than any of the
constitutional principles or political practices, the movements are
creating new subjectivities that desire and are capable of democratic
relations. The movements are writing a manual for how to create and live
in a new society.

Going beyond their direct comments, the “scaffolding” being built is not
simply ideological or intellectual, and not just a toolkit of governance
practices. And the “new society” is not something to be built “in the
event of a radical social break.” The scaffolding includes economic and
social counter-institutions here and now. And as much as possible of the
new society should be built and already in place, from the coalescence
of these counter-institutions into an emergent counter-system, when
the radical social break occurs. However long it takes until the final
break occurs, in the meantime the crisis tendencies of late capitalism
continue, along with growing precarity and underemployment, and both
state- and employer-based social safety nets continue to erode.
Responding to the mounting material pressures under which people are
placed by these crisis tendencies is the “killer app” of the
counter-institutions here and now, and it is by responding to these
material realities in a way that offers a material alternative to
capitalism that we will build the new society within the shell of the
old. When the radical break occurs, it should simply amount to a
breaking of the shell and a putting paid to the last of the old society.

Electoral politics in the UK and US: a libertarian shift on the Left?

In the United States in the 1970s, for several years after the collapse
of Consensus Capitalism, there appeared to be potential for an
alternative path based on further exploiting the disintegration of the
New Deal labor accord and pushing further left with a refusal of work,
subversion of the wage system and capital accumulation, etc., and
promotion of decentralist, left-libertarian models of organization.
These possibilities were exemplified by Harry Boyte’s The Backyard
, Radical Technology, the People’s Bicentennial Commission
and their Common Sense II, and a wide variety of policy experiments
with employee ownership and self-management. Instead the danger from
this nascent decentralist and populist movement was headed off, and
coopted, by the fake populism of the New Right.

In the UK this approach, broadly speaking, focused on economic
decentralization and economic democracy. Under Tony Benn, Wilson’s
secretary of state for industry, there was some experimentation with
worker cooperatives and economic democracy.

One Labour response to de-industrialization involving the placement of
failing industrial enterprises under worker management and their
conversion to new forms of production. Robin Murray, an activist on the
Labour left, describes the movement’s encounter with the libertarian
possibilities of post-Fordist production:

Throughout the 1970s, and right up until the drafting of Labour’s London
Manifesto for the 1981 municipal elections, the predominant economic
paradigm was Fordism: left economic industrial strategy was based on the
idea of scale and rationalisation. The critique of industrial Britain
across the political spectrum was that it was backward. It had too many
old family firms, who underinvested and weren’t good at managing. What
was needed was to modernise them, by encouraging amalgamations,
increasing investment and appointing professional managers. That
approach underpinned industrial policy in the 1960s, but it was then
given a ‘leftward flip’ in the 1970s, when Tony Benn (a key figure of
the Labour left in the 1970s and 1980s) took it up, with the idea of
marrying these modern ‘forces of production’, with greater democratic

Murray and some others on the Labour left, from the late 70s on,
encountered information from the Italian flexible specialization
industrial model, and scholarly specialists on it like Charles Sabel and
Piore, that undermined the Party’s archaic Galbraithian/Chandlerian
industrial technology. Networked industrial ecologies of dozens of firms
of dozens of workers each in northern Italy were collectively producing
output on the same scale as a single British firm employing thousands,
but with two-thirds the unit cost. This seemed to open up the
possibility of a production model that made real democratic control on
the shop floor feasible in a way that it wasn’t feasible under
Fordism. Unfortunately, the triumph of Thatcherism was
at the very same time closing off this decentralist path; and when the
Party did regain power, it was under a Blairite platform.

And today, following the mass reaction to the perceived failure of
neoliberalism in the Great Recession, we once again see the rise of a
new Left with libertarian socialist sensibilities, centered on the
Millennials and Gen Z, Great Recession/Occupation generation, etc.,
exemplified by Sanders in the US and Miliband and Corbyn in the UK,

The reaction against neoliberalism was accompanied by a renaissance of
heterodox economic thought on the Left, as described by Andy Beckett.

The new leftwing economics wants to see the redistribution of economic
power, so that it is held by everyone — just as political power is held
by everyone in a healthy democracy. This redistribution of power could
involve employees taking ownership of part of every company; or local
politicians reshaping their city’s economy to favour local, ethical
businesses over large corporations; or national politicians making
co-operatives a capitalist norm.

This “democratic economy” is not some idealistic fantasy: bits of it are
already being constructed in Britain and the US… “If we want to live
in democratic societies, then we need to … allow communities to shape
their local economies,” write Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill, both
prolific advocates of the new economics, in a recent article for the
Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)….

The new economists’ enormously ambitious project means transforming the
relationship between capitalism and the state; between workers and
employers; between the local and global economy; and between those with
economic assets and those without. “Economic power and control must rest
more equally,” declared a report last year by the New Economics
Foundation (NEF), a radical London thinktank that has acted as an
incubator for many of the new movement’s members and ideas.

In the past, left-of-centre British governments have attempted to
reshape the economy by taxation — usually focused on income rather than
other forms of economic power — and by nationalisation, which usually
meant replacing a private-sector management elite with a state-appointed
one. Instead of such limited, patchily successful interventions, the new
economists want to see much more systemic and permanent change. They
want — at the least — to change how capitalism works. But, crucially,
they want this change to be only partially initiated and overseen by the
state, not controlled by it. They envisage a transformation that happens
almost organically, driven by employees and

Under Miliband and Corbyn, Labour not only shifted further to the left
but increasingly focused on economic democracy (e.g. cooperative
governance and self-management, as opposed to the Morrisonian model of
managerialism) to an extent never before seen.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto aimed at “a bold transformation of the British
economy organised around ownership, control, democracy, and

…‘Co-operatives, shared ownership, and workplace democracy’, John
McDonnell has stated, ‘all have a central role to play here’…. Corbyn,
for his part, has promised ‘decisive action to make finance the servant
of industry not the masters of all’ and called for local councils to be
given more freedom to run utilities and services in order to ‘roll back
the tide of forced privatisation’ and allow communities to shape and
secure their economic future. Not since the ’seventies and early
’eighties – when the Party was committed to bringing about what Tony
Benn termed ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of
power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’ – has
Labour put forward as bold a plan for the transformation of Britain.
Instead of the extractive and concentrating forces of corporate
capitalism, the emerging new political economy is circulatory and
place-based, decentralising economic power, rebuilding and stabilising
regions and local communities, allowing for the possibility of real
democracy and participation, and providing the long-run institutional
and policy support for a new politics dedicated to achieving genuine
social change…

The Labour Party started to face up to the limitations of ‘merely
redistributive’ economic strategies under the leadership of Ed Miliband,
whose thinking on predistribution offered at least the beginnings of a
radical reinvention of social democracy…. In this sense, Miliband was
ahead of his time – and it’s encouraging to see more ambitious
institutional thinking now coming from sources such as the Institute for
Public Policy Research (IPPR), with ideas around the transformation of
corporate governance and the creation of a citizens’ wealth fund
emanating from the promising Commission on Economic Justice….

…For socialists, responses to capitalist private ownership of the
economy have traditionally divided along two main lines. In greatly
simplified terms, state socialism placed ownership and control of
capital with the state, whereas social democracy left it largely in
private hands but sought to redistribute the returns through taxation
and transfers. A neglected third tradition, however, largely eclipsed by
the left’s great twentieth-century projects, is to be found in the
long-running socialist commitment to economic democracy.

Labour’s Land for the Many program, aimed at remedying the concentrated
ownership of half the UK’s land by one percent of the population,
envisioned forced sale of abandoned or derelict properties, replacement
of council taxes with land value taxation, and the creation of community
land trusts.

In Preston, the local Labour government experimented with a municipalist
model inspired in part by the work of Gar Alperovitz.

Preston’s hilltop city centre, which had been fading for decades, now
has a refurbished and busy covered market, new artists’ studios in
former council offices, and coffee and craft beer being sold from
converted shipping containers right behind the town hall. All these
enterprises have been facilitated by the council. Less visibly, but
probably more importantly, the city’s large concentration of other
public sector bodies — a hospital, a university, a police headquarters —
have been persuaded by the council to procure goods and services locally
whenever possible, becoming what the Democracy Collaborative calls
“anchor institutions.” They now spend almost four times as much of their
budgets in Preston as they did in 2013.

But immediate hopes for the new-model Left in the UK were resoundingly
smashed by the December 2019 General Election.

An analysis in The American Prospect published shortly before the
election is even more relevant in its aftermath. At a Chingford
community assembly in the London area,

People wonder if a universal basic income trial could be run in their
area, and they discuss sustainable local farming and business tax breaks
that could be linked to environmentally sustainable practices. One woman
suggests giving local councils the power to reclaim vacant storefronts
in order to house the homeless; later in the summer, Labour proposes
such a policy, under which local authorities could take properties which
have been vacant for 12 months and offer them to startups, cooperative
businesses, and community projects. Another participant suggests
training green mechanics, which, [Director of the Centre for Labour and
Social Studies and unsuccessful Labour MP candidate Faiza] Shaheen tells
me, sticks out to her because her father was a car mechanic and it had
become hard for him to work with new engines…. This is one of the
major goals of these events and of the COU in general: to build Labour’s
policy manifesto from the grassroots….

“When Thatcher closed down the pits and the steelworks, it was not only
those jobs that went, but it was also the kind of collective political
community culture and institutions,” [Labour Party Director of Community
Organising Dan] Firth says. “Part of what we are trying to do is to
rebuild that culture and to put the Labour Party back in the center of
communities which it hasn’t been part of for some time.”

One local fight is the fight to stop the demolition of both private and
council flats in Westminster on land owned by “the 28-year-old Duke of
Westminster, a multibillionaire,” whose company “plans to bulldoze the
buildings to build luxury housing there….”

In the immediate aftermath of the loss, Chris Smaje proposed an ecology
of libertarian community economies as the new social base for
post-Corbyn Labour.

…[T]he Labour Party’s malaise has deep historic roots that long pre-date
Corbyn’s tenure, relating to the demise of the organized industrial
working-class and its forms of community-building and self-education.
What’s now needed to create an electable left populism is longer-term
community-building of another kind, promoting locally shared spaces and
resources, environmental care and economic autonomy that tries to build
bridges among whoever’s locally in place.

Labour MP Alex Sobel similarly proposed a new approach based on
community activism and rebuilding municipal economies on a democratic

One idea is an organising model [in post-industrial communities] based
on visible, practical and helpful grassroots action, delivered all year
round. Advice hubs providing support could take the form of co-ops or
social enterprises. They might provide benefits help, housing advice or
a warm meal. They could be funded by the party, local fundraising
efforts or trade unions and run with voluntary support. Some groups
could aspire to owning the buildings from which they operate, creating
real and long-term community anchors.

II. Strategy

From a strategic standpoint, Exodus confers enormous advantages on those
who adopt that approach. Our fight no longer requires us to contest the
ruling class’s control of the means of production and state
administration, as in previous revolutions, but only to create a society
of our own without interference.

Individualist anarchist Katherine Gallagher outlined the strategy
several years ago in a series of tweets on Twitter:

For me it’s about stretching out our networks of what’s possible across
borders, about decentralizing… “We” will be transnational, and
distributed. We won’t be encircled by “them,” but woven through their
antiquated structures, impossible to quarantine off and finish. I’m not
a pacifist. I’m not at all against defensive violence. That’s a separate
question to me of overthrow. But to oversimplify, when it comes to
violence, I want it to be the last stand of a disintegrating order
against an emerging order that has already done much of the hard work of
building its ideals/structures…. Build the society and defend it,
don’t go forth with the guns and attempt to bring anarchy about in the

I think technology is increasingly putting the possibility of meaningful
resistance and worker independence within the realm of a meaningful
future. So much of the means of our oppression is now more susceptible
to being duplicated on a human scale (and so much of patent warfare
seems to be aimed at preventing this).

And I think we should be working on how we plan to create a parallel
industry that is not held only by those few. More and more the means to
keep that industry held only by the few are held in the realm of patent
law. It is no longer true that the few own the “lathe” so to speak,
nearly as much as they own the patent to it. So we truly could achieve
more by creating real alternative manufacture than seizing that built.
Yes, there will be protective violence, but it’s not as true as it was
in the past that there is real necessary means of production in the
hands of the few. What they control more now is access to the methods of
production and try to prevent those methods being used outside of their
watch. Again, I’m not saying that the “last days” of the state won’t be
marked by violence. But I am saying we now have real tactical options
beyond confronting them directly until they come to

Indeed, when the state brings about the revolutionary rupture by
initiating force against the nascent system emerging in its midst, the
resulting violence may serve only to ratify the transition after the

In most cases, the work being done to build decentralized systems, will
be opaque to the people running the existing system.  It won’t look like
a  threat until they have already won (the model for this is how
feudalism was replaced by markets — the nobles didn’t know they had
lost, as an institution, until they lost their castles to

Whatever violence does occur at the final transition will be primarily
defensive, not constitutive. The 500-odd-year-old capitalist system,
like previous historic systems, is not a monolithic unity but a
collection of mutually interacting social formations — some in
ascendancy, some in decline. It follows that the supplanting of
capitalism need not involve a dramatic rupture on the part of a
monolithic unity of progressive forces. As Eugene Holland argues,

the requirement of such a radical systemic break is necessary only when
you conceive of a society or mode of production as a total system in the
first place…. Construing such elements in terms of dominant, residual,
and emergent improves utopian prospects considerably, inasmuch as there
would presumably be positive elements to affirm (the “emergent” ones)
alongside the negative ones to critique and reject (presumably all the
“dominant” ones)….

Negri and Hardt, likewise, take the position that if violence occurs it
will be when the forces of the old order attempt — and fail — to thwart
the transition.

…our current situation is propitious… because the constituent power
of the multitude has matured to such an extent that it is becoming able,
through its networks of communication and cooperation, through its
production of the common, to sustain an alternative democratic society
on its own. Here is where the question of time becomes essential. When
does the moment of rupture come?… Revolutionary politics must grasp,
in the movement of the multitudes and through the accumulation of common
and cooperative decisions, the moment of rupture… that can create a
new world.

And in this context, they argue that the primary role of violence in the
transition is not the revolutionary seizure of power, but defensive
violence to protect the counter-institutions we have built against a
final, last-ditch attempt at suppression by the capitalist state. They
note that Moses and Aaron had to defeat Pharaoh’s pursuing forces in
order to complete the exodus successfully. “Every exodus requires an
active resistance, a rear-guard war against the pursuing powers of

An important corollary of this principle of defensive violence is that,
from the perspective of democracy, violence cannot create anything but
can only preserve what has already been created…. Democratic violence
can only defend society, not create it. This is equally true in
revolutionary situations. Democratic violence does not initiate the
revolutionary process but rather comes only at the end, when the
political and social transformation has already taken place, to defend
its accomplishments.

To quote Holland again, however abrupt and dramatic the final rupture
may seem, it is only the culmination of a long preexisting process of —
again — “building the structure of the new society within the shell of
the old.”

Following 1640, 1776, 1789, 1848, 1917, and 1949, we have been fixated
on the image of revolution — of punctual, violent, wholesale
transformation — as the most desirable (and often the only acceptable)
mode of social change. But revolution is not the only mode of social
transformation: feudalism, for instance, arose piecemeal following the
decline of the Roman Empire, in a process that took centuries to
complete…. Immediate and total social transformation of the
revolutionary kind is not absolutely necessary for a number of reasons,
not the least of which is that capitalism is not a total system to begin
with. Alternatives are not only always possible, they in fact already
exist. Inasmuch as the secret of so-called primitive accumulation is
that it is actually first and foremost a process of dispossession —
ongoing as well as primitive — one answer… to the question of what is to
be done is thus to initiate a slow-motion general strike. Seek out
actually existing alternative modes of self-provisioning — they are out
there, in Remarkable number and variety — and also develop new ones;
walk away from dependence on capital and the State, one step, one
stratum, at a time, while at the same time making sure to have and
continually develop alternative practices and institutions to sustain
the movement. To effectively replace capitalism and the State, a
slow-motion general strike must indeed become-general or reach critical
mass or bifurcation point eventually, but it doesn’t have to be all
encompassing right from the beginning or produce wholesale social change
all at once: it can start off small and/or scattered and become-general
over time….

Hegemonic thinking (i.e., thinking that social change is always and only
a matter of hegemony)… leads to the double impasse of “revolution or
reform”: given its totalizing view of society, one must either seek the
total and utter demolition of that society through revolution or settle
for piecemeal reforms that ultimately have no decisive effect on it. But
society is not a totality: it is a contingent assemblage, or assemblage
of assemblages. Nomad citizenship thus proposes… a variety of
“small-scale experiments in the construction of alternative modes of
social, political and economic organization [as] a way to avoid both
waiting forever for the Revolution to come and perpetuating existing
structures through reformist demands.”

…[T]he key difference between every ordinary strike and the general
strike is that while the former makes demands on capitalist employers,
the latter simply steps away from capital altogether and — if it is to
succeed—moves in the direction of other form(s) of self-provisioning,
enabling the emergence of other form(s) of social life — for example,
nomad citizenship and free-market communism.

…[T]he slow-motion general strike is, in an Important sense, neither
reformist nor revolutionary. It does not employ violence in direct
confrontation with the capitalist State and is therefore unlikely to
provoke State violence in return, yet neither does it rely on and
thereby reinforce the existing practices and institutions of capital and
the State….

…Vital to the success of a slow-motion general strike is its
sustainability: the unrelenting process of dispossession of capital
known as primitive accumulation must actually be

The large-scale transition may appear to take place as a comparatively
sudden phase change, but only after the ground has been prepared by a
prolonged Gramscian “war of position” in civil society. To quote Jay
Ufelder, “revolutionary situations [are] an emergent property of complex

One of the features of complex systems is the possibility of threshold
effects, in which seemingly small perturbations in some of the system’s
elements suddenly produce large changes in others. The fragility of the
system as a whole may be evident (and therefore partially predictable)
from some aspects of its structure, but the timing of the revolutionary
moment’s emergence and the specific form it will take will be impossible
to anticipate with any precision.

In this version of politics, the emergence of rival organizations is as
likely to be a consequence of the system’s failure as a cause of

Capt. B.H. Liddell-Hart, an apostle of maneuver warfare and the indirect
approach, cited Lenin’s “vision of fundamental truth” that

‘the soundest strategy in war is to postpone operations until the moral
disintegration of the enemy renders the delivery of the mortal blow both
possible and easy’. This is not always practicable, nor his methods of
propaganda always fruitful. But it will bear adaptation — ‘The soundest
strategy in any campaign is to postpone battle and the soundest tactics
to postpone attack, until the moral dislocation of the enemy renders the
delivery of a decisive blow practicable.’

And attempts at transition by revolutionary or insurrectionary means —
Gramsci’s so-called “War of Maneuver” — tend overwhelmingly to be
counterproductive in the modern era, according to Amador

Okay, so, the key features of the “war of maneuver” are: speed, limited
appeal, and frontal attack. Gramsci makes his arguments via Trotsky’s
“permanent revolution,” George Sorels’ general strike, Rosa Luxembourg´s
worker insurrection and, particularly, the Leninist power grab. These
images of revolutionary change clash, time and again, with European and
Western reality: the bloody repression of the Spartacist movement in
Germany (1918), the disbanding of worker’s councils in Italy during the
Bienno Rosso (1919–20), and so on. To avert a predictable sense of
frustration and to keep actively aspiring to social change, we have to
reimagine revolution.

Previous struggles, of course, have involved efforts to reduce
dependence on the wage system. In the early to mid-19th
century, for example, Owenite craft unions set up cooperative shops for
independent production by the unemployed, and traded their output with
that of other unions using labor notes. But their goal was to win the
strikes and go back to work in their old shops on better terms.

And according to John Curl, later attempts by the Knights of Labor to
create worker cooperatives foundered on the capitalization requirements.

This struggle is different, in that such economic secessionism is at the
heart of it. There’s no need for us ever to go back to the capitalists’
factories, let alone fight for control of them. We can feed ourselves
using intensive cultivation techniques like Permaculture on small
amounts of land, and let the giant subsidized agribusiness plantations
go back to prairie. We can produce for ourselves in neighborhood garage
factories, home microbakeries, open-source ride-sharing platforms, and
the like, and let their giant factories full of obsolete machinery turn
to rust.

As technological progress makes the physical capital required for
production cheaper and cheaper, and brings it back within the realm of
ownership by individuals and small cooperative groups — like the craft
tools that prevailed before the industrial revolution — the main source
of productivity becomes human cooperation itself, and knowledge as a

This means that the rentier classes can no longer extract surplus labor
from the population by controlling access to the physical means of
production. It must enclose our social relationships themselves as a
source of rents.

According to Negri and Hardt, class struggle increasingly takes the
form, not of an attempt to storm the physical means of production, but
of “exodus” — ”a process of subtraction from the relationship with
capital by means of actualizing the potential autonomy of labor-power.”

For them, of course, this autonomy referred to the autonomy of labor
processes created by capitalists themselves — not to commons-based
institutions created outside capitalism. But the principle applies
equally well in the latter case. For the first time in two hundred
years, the radical cheapening of physical capital and the primacy of
human capital mean that we can adopt a revolutionary strategy that’s not
based on somehow obtaining control of the ruling class’s institutions
and concentrations of capital.

Massimo De Angelis, as we saw in the previous chapter, views the history
of capitalism as a continually shifting correlation of forces between
capital and the commons sector. And his strategic approach to the
postcapitalist transition, much like that of these other thinkers, is to
build up the commons sector at the expense of capital and the state.

In this environment, large-scale demonstrations are still useful. But
their purpose is no longer the same as in the cities of Europe in 1848,
Petrograd in 1917, or Barcelona in 1936. Their purpose is no longer to
organize and fight pitched battles in the process of contesting control
of the state and the means of production. Their purpose now is
educational: to undermine the legitimacy of the regime in the eyes of
the general public, to show people they don’t need to be free, and to
serve as a giant school and clearing house — in the wonderful phrase of
Ralph Borsodi and Mildred Loomis, a “school for living.”

As Angelos Varvarousis argues, horizontalist protest movements exist in
symbiosis with commons-based counter-institutions, with the protest
movements giving birth to waves of institution-building, and the ecology
of counter-institutions in turn serving as the base from which future
waves of protest are launched.

Commoning that takes place during the most contentious and visible
phases of social movements does not always evaporate after mobilizations
are over, but it can be disseminated within the social fabric and, at
the same time, it can create new social fabric. This expansion of the
commons especially in periods of crisis and destabilization usually
takes place rhizomatically. The commons of the social movements, thus,
are not just temporal forms of commoning but liminal commons; commons
that facilitate transitions and may transform into or give rise to
other, more stable, forms of commoning in their wake….

…[T]he rhizomatic expansion of the commons was not simply related to the
Greek movement of the squares but to a great extent can be regarded as
its “transmutation.”… [T]he commons that multiplied in Athens and
Barcelona (and partly in Istanbul) in the wake of the respective
movements of the squares should be conceptualized as social outcomes of
these social movements. Social outcomes signify the “alternative social
infrastructure within different spheres of social production and
reproduction like health and care provision, education, food production,
housing, finance and others. They are characterized by their dynamic
interaction with the more visible periods of the social movements, as
they incarnate practices, imaginaries, collective memories and
innovations emerged and practiced during such periods and disseminated
through the social fabric afterwards.”

…Examples of these initiatives [commoning projects in Greece after the
2011 protests] include social clinics and pharmacies, workers’
cooperatives, occupied urban spaces, time banks and alternative
currencies, neighborhood assemblies and solidarity exchange networks,
urban gardens, farmer or consumer cooperatives, farmers’ markets without
intermediaries, artist and publishing collectives, and a single occupied

Social clinics are ventures that aim at providing healthcare services to
those excluded from the public health system. Some also aim at resisting
and toppling dominant public health policies, as well as developing a
new model for a different provision of healthcare services. They hardly
existed before 2011 but have multiplied afterwards. In 2014 there were
72 known initiatives. The majority of them were initiated between 2011
and 2012.

Solidarity hubs are ventures mainly active at the local neighborhood
level, which aim at reconstructing broken social cohesion through a
series of actions such as social kitchens, distribution of “food
parcels,” free lessons or clothing distribution. Some appeared and
disappeared quickly, while others have been more enduring and exist to
this day; this fluidity makes it difficult to estimate their number. In
any case, while they were non-existent before 2011 (or at least there
were very few and had different names and repertoires of action), there
were over 110 of them in 2014.

Direct producer-to-consumer networks were also popularized after 2011,
especially between 2012 and 2014. Indicatively, while they were
non-existent or unknown before 2011, there were 47 recorded networks in
2014. Other forms of social and solidarity economy did also emerge
during the crisis and after 2011. 70% of the existing social and
solidarity economy organizations were created after 2011. The
organizations in this economic field are both formal and informal and
range from social enterprises to informal time banks and alternative
currencies. In 2017 the total number of organizations across the country
was estimated at 1500.

To quote one Syntagma participant: “There is no doubt that the days of
the squares were, and to some extent still are, a point of reference
both for our lives and for the projects we are developing since then. It
was like a train that came through Athens in those days, and many of us
jumped on to go towards the unknown.”

Of course the relationship between movements and commons is mutual and

Not only do social movements create social outcomes, but also social
outcomes become the basis upon which new social movements may develop.
This is evident in the relation between the December 2008 revolt and the
2011 movement of the squares. For instance, popular assemblies were
direct social outcomes and commoning projects that sprung from the
revolt; after being briefly suspended, they were reactivated to form
part of the alternative social infrastructure of the commoning projects
that developed out of the square. To be sure, every movement creates its
own forms of organization, narratives and sets of practices; my aim here
is not to promote a reductive view of the Syntagma movement as a mere
continuation of the December revolt, as it was not…. However, an
important element of continuity between the 2008 and 2011 mobilizations
lies indeed in the practice of commoning.

The expansion of commoning institutions in 2011 was rhizomatic:
“a-centered, unplanned and non-linear…” The individual nodes,
severally, were established independently of one another, and not
through seeding or mitosis from pre-existing nodes. There was no
“organic relation or pre-planned agenda” connecting them. The explosion
of (for example) hundreds of cooperative clinics “just

This is not to say that the organizers of new nodes were unaware of
similar activity elsewhere — simply that they acted on their own
initiative. As Varvarousis describes it, rhizomatic expansion sounds
like stigmergic coordination, in which individual nodes coordinate their
activity with larger movements through a background medium rather than
direct negotiation:

Rhizomatic expansion is characterized by the simultaneous emergence of
various commoning projects in different places and times, a phenomenon
that in biology is called punctuation. This happens within a highly
accelerating spiral, in which new projects do not know each other and
are very loosely connected, primarily through unforeseen

Mass and scale, and the seizure of major institutions from the ruling
class, are no longer of primary importance.

Anthropologist David Graeber has been influenced by the same autonomist
tradition Hardt and Negri come from. In response to Russell Brand’s
query about formulating “a centralized revolutionary movement to
coordinate transition,” he replied:

well, my own approach is to avoid constituting any sort of new
authority, … my dream is to create a thousand autonomous institutions
that can gradually take over the business of organizing everyday life,
pretty much ignoring the authorities, until gradually the whole
apparatus of state comes to seem silly, unnecessary….

This focus on building counter-institutions rather than insurrectionary
assault has obvious advantages from a strategic perspective.

A strategy of building the new society within the interstices of the old
one has the notable advantage of not presenting large, high-value
targets to the enemy. As a character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312

“Build housing or do land work. Make it that kind of revolution, one of
the nonviolent ones. If something happens fast enough they call it a
revolution whether guns go off or not.”

“But the guns are there.”

“Maybe they are, but what if no one dares to shoot them? What if what we
did was always too innocuous? Or even invisible?.”…

“If you are clear about your intentions, Swan, there will be
opposition…. Any change will be opposed. And by serious opposition. I
mean violence.”

“If they can find the way to apply it. But if there’s no one to arrest,
no one to beat back, no one to scare…”

The Byzantine general Belisarius’s strategic approach — the strategic
offensive combined with tactical defensive — was an excellent
illustration, by way of military analogy, of Gramsci’s War of Position.
His reconquest of North Africa, Italy and Spain was, military historian
B.H. Liddell-Hart writes,

the more remarkable because of two features — first, the extraordinarily
slender resources with which Belisarius undertook these far-reaching
campaigns; second, his consistent use of the tactical defensive. There
is no parallel in history for such a series of conquests by abstention
from attack. They are the more remarkable since they were carried out by
an army that was based on the mobile arm — and mainly composed of
cavalry. Belisarius had no lack of audacity, but his tactics were to
allow — or tempt—the other side to do the attacking.

…Belisarius had developed a new-style tactical instrument with which
he knew that he might count on beating much superior numbers, provided
that he could induce his opponents to attack him under conditions that
suited his tactics. For that purpose his lack of numbers, when not too
marked, was an asset, especially when coupled with an audaciously direct
strategic offensive. His strategy was thus more psychological than [an
attack on the enemy’s logistics]. He knew how to provoke the barbarian
armies of the West into indulging their natural instinct for direct
assault; with the more subtle and skilful Persians he was able at first
to take advantage of their feeling of superiority to the Byzantines, and
later, when they learnt respect for him, he exploited their wariness as
a means of outmaneuvering them psychologically.

Gallagher’s model for transition from one system to another in the quote
above is a perfect illustration of the principle of avoiding direct
battle when possible and forcing the enemy to initiate it on unfavorable
ground when it does occur. To quote Liddell-Hart again,

For even if a decisive battle be the goal, the aim of strategy must be
to bring about this battle under the most advantageous circumstances.
And the more advantageous the circumstances, the less, proportionately,
will be the fighting.

The perfection of strategy would be, therefore, to produce a decision
without any serious fighting.

The difference between being the first to occupy superior ground and
then assuming the tactical defensive, and a head-on assault to destroy
the enemy physically, is the difference between an alternate history
Longstreet occupying Little Round Top on July 1, 1863 and Pickett’s
Charge. T. E. Lawrence characterized advocates of the latter responses
as those “who would rather fight with their arms than with their

The proper goal is “not so much to seek battle as to seek a strategic
situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce the
decision, its continuation by a battle is sure to achieve
this”— by a battle, I would add, which is initiated by
the enemy

On the other hand, committing prematurely to a particular line of attack
renders our own position less advantageous by reducing the number of
options that remain open for the future. One of the recurring methods
Liddell-Hart points to as an example of the “indirect approach” is
pursuing a route of advance that always threatens two or more alternate
objectives at the same time; the enemy must divide its defensive forces
between them, while the attacker can either decide at the last minute
which one of them to concentrate its forces against — or even bypass all
defending enemy forces and keep pushing to the rear. A dedicated line of
attack,, on the other hand, enables the enemy to concentrate its
available forces along a known axis.

Applying the same principle to the revolutionary transition, pursuing a
strategy of counter-institution building without attempting a decisive
frontal assault on the old system has the effect of creating
alternative objectives, in the sense of leaving the entire system in a
state of vulnerability.

Counter-institutions starving the corporate state and engaging in
constant, partial disruption will result in incremental state retreat
from marginal areas based on cost-benefit ratios, without ever posing
enough of a one-time threat to make an all-out counter-assault worth the
state’s while. The state will simply retreat into smaller and smaller
islands of governability.

At the same time, a strategy of counter-institution building is also
much more compatible with a prefigurative approach to politics. The
demands for insurrectionary conquest of the state and capital are often
directly at odds with the kind of successor society we want to build.

[October 7, 2020]

Chapter Eight: Interstitial Development: Engagement With the State

The primary tendency of leftist movements with interstitial development
models has been to emphasize Exodus and the building of
counter-institutions as a reaction, not only against seizing political
power, but against engagement with the state in all its forms.

According to Negri and Hardt, the role of the state in the
postcapitalist transition will be quite secondary compared to its role
in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The relationship between
the dominant class and the state is the opposite of that Hobbes
described at the dawn of the modern era. The “nascent bourgeoisie”

was not capable of guaranteeing social order on its own; it required a
political power to stand above it…. The multitude, in contrast to the
bourgeoisie and all other exclusive, limited class formations, is
capable of forming society autonomously….

And this approach, as we have already noted, has largely characterized
the post-1994 networked movements. David Graeber cited the “Buenos Aires
strategy” from the Argentine meltdown as a model for Occupy:

Essentially, the strategy is to create alternative institutions, based
on horizontal principles, that have nothing to do with the government,
and declare the entire political system to be absolutely corrupt….
Hence after the popular economic collapse in Argentina in 2001, a
popular uprising that ousted three different governments in a matter of
months settled into a strategy of creating alternative institutions
based on the strategy of creating alternative institutions based on the
principles of what they themselves called “horizontality”; popular
assemblies to govern urban neighborhoods, recuperated factories and
other workplaces…, self-organized unemployed associations…, even,
for a while, an alternative currency system.

John Holloway argued, in similar terms, that Occupy shouldn’t be
concerned with influencing state policy or taking control of the present
system — which is becoming increasingly impossible — but with seceding
from the system and telling capital to go to hell.

…[P]erhaps we can hope that non-state oriented politics will become
more and more common and more widespread throughout society….

As a refusal?

Yes, as a refusal. As a kind of total breakdown of the old way of doing
things, which might bring a few little benefits but really it didn’t
take anybody very far. And I think that more and more people are being
forced to reinvent their politics or reinvent their ideas about
politics, both in terms of protests — but also I think in terms of
creating alternatives. If the system has no room for us, if the system
simply leaves 50% of young people unemployed, if state benefits are cut
back, if the state absolutely refuses to negotiate, if the police become
more repressive, then I think we are forced not only to think of
creative forms of protest but also ways of how we actually survive and
how we actually create alternative ways of living…. But I think what
the crisis is also telling us is that that’s the way to go, but
that we haven’t gone far enough yet. We’re not yet in a situation where
we can just tell capital to go to hell and survive without it…. But I
think that’s the direction we have to go in.

Holloway refers to that approach as “changing the world without taking
power.” That means

to create, within the very society that is being rejected, spaces,
moments, or areas of activity in which a different world is prefigured.
Rebellions in motion. From this perspective, the idea of organization is
no longer equivalent to that of the party, but rather entails the
question of how the different cracks that unravel the fabric of
capitalism can recognize each other and connect….

…In the last twenty or thirty years we find a great many movements
that claim something else: it is possible to emancipate human activity
from alienated labor by opening up cracks where one is able to do things
differently, to do something that seems useful, necessary, and
worthwhile to us; an activity that is not subordinated to the logic of

…The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks….

If we’re not going to accept the annihilation of humanity…, then the
only alternative is to think that our movements are the birth of another
world. We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing
them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking the
confluence or, preferably, the commoning of the cracks.

…[L]et’s bear in mind that a precondition for the French Revolution
was that, at a certain point, the social network of bourgeois relations
no longer needed the aristocracy in order to exist. Likewise, we must
work to reach a point where we can say “we don’t care if global capital
isn’t investing in Spain, because we’ve built a mutual support network
that’s strong enough to enable us to live with dignity.”

Holloway sees socialist models based on taking state power as
reproducing rather than abolishing the capital-labor relationship in
many ways. It takes for granted the existence of alienated wage labor
under capitalism, set over against institutional structures like
corporate management and the state which are separate from and above
labor. The traditional Left aims at capturing these structures and using
them for the benefit of labor:

…a movement that struggles to improve the living standards of workers
(considered as victims and objects) immediately refers to the state.
Why? Because the state, due to its very separation from society, is the
ideal institution if one seeks to achieve benefits for people. This is
the traditional thinking of the labor movement and that of the left
governments that currently exist in Latin America.

The state option, including the seizure of state power by movements like
Syriza and Podemos,

entails channeling aspirations and struggles into institutional conduits
that, by necessity, force one to seek a conciliation between the anger
that these movements express and the reproduction of capital. Because
the existence of any government involves promoting the reproduction of
capital (by attracting foreign investment, or through some other means),
there is no way around it. This inevitably means taking part in the
aggression that is capital. It’s what has already happened in Bolivia
and Venezuela, and it will also be the problem in Greece or

As Holloway observes in his analysis of the Zapatista rejection of state
power, “The state, any state, is so bound into the web of global
capitalist social relations that it has no option, whatever the
composition of the government, but to promote the reproduction of those

Ana Cecilia Dinerstein echoes Holloway’s framing of the essentially
capitalist nature of the state.

The problem of translation became evident to me during my research with
social movements in Latin America during ‘the pink tide’ period, at the
beginning of the XXI Century. On the one hand, new autonomous movements
emerged and regarded themselves as prefigurative, for they offered a
myriad of autonomous initiatives that shaped the politics of the time
through radical pedagogies; cooperative work, art, entertainment and
care; new forms of defending indigenous traditions and customs;
horizontal democracy; environmental awareness and territorialized
resistance cultivated in imaginative forms on a day-to-day basis in
neighbourhoods, squares, the countryside, jungles, and harbours. This
change in social movements and activism that expanded into Europe,
(particularly but not exclusively Southern Europe), a decade later,
indicated a shift from a claim-making role to a prefigurative role
based on the articulation of alternative practices, which I have called
‘concrete utopias.’

However, what also became apparent during ‘the pink tide’ period, was
that the integration of movements’ concrete utopias into the political,
legal and policy instruments of governability required their
deradicalisation. As left governments worked to incorporate movements’
ideas, demands and practices into state institutions, legal apparatuses
and other state structures, (after initially repressing them, in some
cases) they rendered invisible everything that does not fit into the
State’s existing parameters of legibility. In doing so, they inhibited
social movements’ most important innovations….

We should know by now that the state will never be
the political form of organisation for radical change, but it is a
political mediation. By political mediation I mean that the State is not
simply an instrument of regulation, co-optation, coercion, and
oppression. It is the political form of capitalist social relations and
therefore intervenes in the process of shaping our form of existence and
resistance. As a mediation, the state ‘intervenes’ in the appropriation
of grassroots autonomous practices by power by legalising them or
monetising them. In doing so, it works to force grassroots autonomous
practice into forms which fit the capitalist/ patriarchal/colonial
demarcation of reality.

The Left must come to terms with the idea that the State is not
synonymous with the government. It must recognise that the State is not
a state in a capitalist society, i.e. a neutral arena on which the
common good is decided, but a capitalist state. The state is a
class state. Its ‘relative autonomy’, makes both reform on behalf of the
working class and capitalist accumulation possible, but the state will
ultimately function to preserve a legal order based on private

The new networked, horizontalist movements take just the opposite
approach from the reproduction of capitalist relations — inadvertent or
not — by leftist parties in the state:

The rejection of alienated and alienating labor entails, at the same
time, a critique of the institutional and organizational structures, and
the mindset that springs from it. This is how we can explain the
rejection of trade unions, parties, and the state that we observe in so
many contemporary movements, from the Zapatistas to the Greek or Spanish

In any case a movement focused on electoral politics will entail a
selection of some priorities over others, and if allowed to will divert
all the resources at its disposal to those priorities at the expense of
the rest.

No matter how much lip service is paid to the movement and its
importance, the goal of the conquest of power inevitably involves an
instrumentalisation of struggle. The struggle has an aim: to conquer
political power. The struggle is a means to achieve that aim. Those
elements of struggle which do not contribute to the achievement of that
aim are either given a secondary importance or must be suppressed
altogether: a hierarchy of struggles is established. The
instrumentalisation/hierarchisation is at the same time an
impoverishment of struggle. So many struggles, so many ways of
expressing our rejection of capitalism, so many ways of fighting for our
dream of a different society are simply filtered out, simply remain
unseen when the world is seen through the prism of the conquest of
power. We learn to suppress them, and thus to suppress ourselves. At the
top of the hierarchy we learn to place that part of our activity that
contributes to ‘building the revolution’, at the bottom come frivolous
personal things like affective relations, sensuality, playing, laughing,
loving. Class struggle becomes puritanical: frivolity must be suppressed
because it does not contribute to the goal. The hierarchisation of
struggle is a hierarchisation of our lives and thus a hierarchisation of

The party is the organisational form which most clearly expresses this
hierarchisation. The form of the party, whether vanguardist or
parliamentary, presupposes an orientation towards the state and makes
little sense without it. The party is in fact a form of disciplining
class struggle, of subordinating the myriad forms of class struggle to
the overriding aim of gaining control of the state. The fixing of a
hierarchy of struggles is usually expressed in the form of the party

States, as Theodoris Karyotis writes of Syriza, are “much more
understanding of the type of struggles that envision a stronger state as
the mediator of social antagonisms.” Unfortunately, the Greek public’s
relieved welcome for Syriza, motivated by a desire for a
“demobilization, and… institutionalization of the struggles,” resulted
“the curtailing of demands that did not fit into a coherent program of
state management — including most projects that revolve around popular
self-management of the commons.”

The “real constituent power,” he notes, “the real agents of social
change,” are “tangible, everyday collectives and individuals rooted in
concrete struggles at the local level, disrupting the flow of power and
bringing forward alternatives.”

Karyotis warns that “we should beware the transformation of the party,
initially approached as an “instrument” of the movement, into an
organizational and discursive center point,” and that “getting sucked
into the discourse of state administration and electoral politics
entails a visible danger of incorporation of movements into the dominant
political order.” Rather:

To approach self-determination, organized society should find creative
ways to constitute itself as a counterpower, without becoming absorbed
within the existing institutions of power. There is no doubt that the
movements’ relationship with the state, even with a nominally
“progressive” government, should remain autonomous, confrontational and

David Bollier and Silke Helfrich observe, similarly, that “the Greek
political coalition led by Syriza discovered that its stunning electoral
victory, nominally giving it control of a sovereign state, was not

The Greek state was in fact still subordinated to the power of
international capital and the geopolitical interests of other states.
The rise of Indigenous politician Evo Morales to the presidency of
Bolivia revealed a similar lesson: even smart, well-intentioned
electoral movements have trouble transcending the deep imperatives of
state power because the state remains tightly yoked to an international
system of capitalist finance and resource extraction.

They cite Pablo Solón Romero, a Bolivian activist and former Bolivian
ambassador to the UN, on the example of his country:

Fifteen years ago [in the early 2000s], we had a lot of commoning in
Bolivia — for forests, water, justice, etc. To preserve this, when our
enemy was the state and privatizing everything, we decided we would take
the state. And we succeeded! And we were able to do good things. Now we
have a plurinational state. That’s positive. But … ten years later,
are our communities stronger or weaker? They are weaker! We can’t do
everything that we wanted to do via the state. The state and its
structures have their own logic. We were naïve. We didn’t realize that
those structures were going to change us. —p. 296

Andreas Karitzis ascribes the failure of Syriza in Greece to its almost
exclusive focus on popular mobilization and electoral politics. He “came
to the conclusion that one major failure of the Left is that it lacks a
form of governmentality which matches up with its own logic and values.”
He recommends, instead:

A network of resilient, dynamic and interrelated circuits of
co-operative productive units, alternative financial tools, local cells
of self-governance, community control over infrastructure facilities,
digital data, energy systems, distribution networks etc. These are ways
of gaining a degree of autonomy necessary to defy the despotic control
of the elites over society.

Rather than selling them out as in Greece, the Chavez (to some extent)
and Maduro (much more so) administrations actively coopted or suppressed
the communalist counter-institutions of the Bolivarian movement. As
described by Katrina Kozarek, the role of the communes in Bolivarian
ideology is quite impressive:

Within the communes, and the Bolivarian Revolution in general there are
several types of property, there is of course private property, what
belongs to individuals, there is public property which belongs to the
state, there is social property, which belongs to the state, but the
people are involved in the control of the property and direct social
property, which belongs directly to the communes or the communal

This is important for the principal [sic] of sovereignty of the communal
system, because it allows the communes to acquire goods, services,
resources and even businesses that do not serve individuals, but rather
the common good under collective administration. And this is necessary
for the execution of communal policies.

Every commune has a communal bank, which is a bank account that is
communal property, and is administrated by the commune for the execution
of its own projects and policies. In theory, at least, the communes
should develop direct social companies which create not just employment,
but resources that can then be used for the execution of policies and

The organic law of the Communes states that the purpose of communes is
to promote the Communal state, setting up a political, social and
economic horizon for the Bolivarian Revolution and 21st century
socialism, the realization of “a system of government that opens with
unlimited amplitude the necessary spaces where the people, the popular
masses, are deployed creatively and effectively, for them to obtain
control of power in order to make the decisions that affect their daily
life and their historical destiny
.” as Chavez put it in his manifesto
Libro Azul.

When we talk about the communal state, it means gradually replacing
almost the entire current political and economic system with a new
system based on the communes integrated in communal cities and regional
federations that then articulate policies, production and projects on
national level. It implies going from a concept of government that is
“top down” to a concept that is “bottom up” as well as transforming on a
national level the relations of property, production and administration
of resources.

George Ciccariello-Maher stresses that the communalism represented by
the Bolivarian movement has much older roots in Venezuela than Hugo
Chavez, and that in order to maintain its own integrity and independence
it must exist in something of a dual power situation with the Venezuelan

…Decades ago, revolutionary militants struggling to connect with the
masses jettisoned any expectation of a “Winter Palace” moment in favor
of a more profound understanding of the importance of prolonged
processes and hegemonic struggles. More recently, the contours and
dynamics of the Bolivarian Process have made it clear to anyone in doubt
that the state — and especially the bloated bureaucratic monstrosity
that is the Venezuelan state — is not something to be simply “seized” by
either the ballot or the bullet. As a result, in the words of [Roland]
Denis, “The old slogan of ‘dual power’ (bourgeois and working-class)
valid for the summit of the revolutionary movement today becomes a
permanent strategy in accord with the need for the organization of a
socialized and non-state power.” What once expressed the revolutionary
moment par excellence now becomes a continuous process…, dual power
no longer understood “from above” but “from below” and in a tense
interplay with existing institutions.

María Pilar García-Guadilla writes that “[t]he experience of the
communes reveals a central truth about Chavismo: it contained both the
decentralizing, horizontal dynamics of community organizations and
social movements alongside centralizing, vertical dynamics.”

The latter have proved deeply damaging to the democratic aspirations
that many had for the Chavista experiment….

After the coup d’etat of 2002 — in which Chávez was briefly removed from
office — and the oil strike of 2002–2003, Chávez radicalized his
discourse and political project. He excluded the opposition from playing
a role in public policy and tried to take control of state institutions,
including the state oil company, PDVSA. Meanwhile, the Chavista project
of inclusion and social justice relied on an economic development model
dependent on the extraction of natural resources, most notably oil but
more recently including large-scale mining projects such as the Orinoco
Mining Arc. Although the government has labeled this project
“sustainable,” it involves opening more than 40,000 square miles in a
fragile ecosystem inhabited by indigenous communities to transnational
corporations…. This model does not break with neoliberal
developmentalism and contradicts the government’s anti-globalization

The achievements of the policies that tried to bring about the
participation of popular organizations and social movements in the
management of local, regional, and national levels of government have
been uneven…. On the one hand, communal council policies were based on a
Gramscian conception of democratic participation at the local or
community level, compatible with representative democracy; on the other
hand, participation was linked to an orthodox Leninist conception of
direct democracy intended to substitute representative democracy at the
local and regional levels with a radical democracy at the national level
through the communal state. These tendencies created acute conflicts.

While many urban commune experiences have been a failure, there are some
successful experiences of rural communes. One of the most emblematic,
given its high agricultural and livestock production and its high levels
of participation, is known as El Maizal. Spanning two states and
including more than 9,000 people as of 2018, El Maizal is an important
part of the local economy. The means of production are held in common
and decision-making is done through a Communal Parliament composed of
fifty-two members and three executive spokespeople.

Nonetheless, even in the few successful experiences, there are frequent
conflicts between the state and the communes due to bureaucratic
requirements, the state’s pressure to institutionalize them, and the
communes’ attempts to defend their autonomy. For example, El Maizal has
taken over abandoned state projects and experienced troubles with the
state-run agricultural enterprise, which is supposed to purchase the
commune’s surplus and provide it with supplies. In May 2018, one of the
commune’s leaders was briefly arrested for buying black market supplies
when the state-run supplier did not provide necessary materials on time
(because those materials were also being sold on the black market). Some
communes also complain that when there were disagreements with the
government guidelines and policies, the government did not consult with
them. They also argue that leaders were often imposed by the state, and
that they responded to political rather than social needs and were under
increasing control of the state, the ruling party, and more recently the

García-Guadilla quotes Roland Denis, former Vice-Minister of Planning
and Development, in a 2006 interview:

We tried to deepen community control, that is to say, to give to the
communities the power that is needed to develop new relations with the
state; relations of co-governance and co-management. This practice
caused resistance from the existing institutions, from the “old state”
that continues to exist in Venezuela, in spite of the changes. There is
no concrete vision within the Chávez government, as to how bureaucratic
and economic interests could be effectively eliminated, so as to deeply
transform the state.

The communes and communal institutions were, for the most part,
effectively coopted by the state’s distribution of oil revenue
patronage, and converted into de facto transmission belts of state
policy in a manner similar to what happened to the soviets and factory
committees under the Bolshevik regime.

Within a highly corrupt and inefficient system, the communes became a
mechanism to redistribute oil revenue and, in moments of political
crisis, to mobilize political support for the government….

The communal network, born under state tutelage, has produced serious
dilemmas for communes and social movements. Joining the state
organizational network makes it more difficult to preserve their
autonomy and creates debilitating compromises. For this reason, members
of the most successful communes developed dual memberships, as members
of the commune and of the “movimiento comunero” (commune movement) at
the same time. In some cases, the state officially tried to replace
social movements it accused of “excessive” radicalism — in other words,
of taking critical positions — by promoting para-movements and excluding
social movements from events like the World Social Forum.

The economic crisis has deepened the politics of clientelism, in which
political loyalty is rewarded with economic benefits. The new Local
Committees on Food Supply (CLAPs), which distribute basic goods in
coordination with the military and the ruling party, have relegated
communal councils to a distant secondary role.

Kozarek echoes this analysis, stressing the dependence of the communes
on distribution of revenues from the central government: “most of the
resources allocated to the communal bank come from the national
government on the basis of projects sent to institutions for their
approval, undermining two necessary elements of sovereignty, production
and self-determination.”

Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander describes the dynamic in similar
terms. The state under Chavez’s and Maduro’s leadership has pursued
largely the same developmentalist, authoritarian high modernist model as
its neoliberal predecessors. And the entire project has been weakened by
the fact that the social sector is almost entirely dependent on the
distribution of oil revenues from the state, rather than developing
autonomous productive capacity outside of both the state and capitalist
sectors. “Most of the popular base organizations had no possibility of
autonomy because they lacked their own productive capacity.”

Unfortunately, the cooptation of communalist institutions, and their
subsumption into the apparatus of the state, were to a large extent
built into the legal and ideological framework established under Chavez.
Although the 1999 Constitution placed at least equal emphasis on
communal and participatory democracy compared to representative
democracy, this was counteracted in practical terms by the vesting of
sovereign authority in a unitary, monolithic “people” from whom all
power derived.

Chávez’s revolution interpreted “constituent power” to be embodied by
the “people” — its sole source of authority. The elected constituent
assembly not only had the power to write a new constitution but also
authority above all “constituted” powers, including the existing
legislature and judiciary. Chávez’s first constituent process was
nonpolarized, inclusive, participatory, and institutional; it included
diverse organizations, institutions, and citizens. As a result, the 1999
Bolivarian Constitution reflects political-ideological differences.
Despite these differences, the constitution defines the government’s
source of power as the unitary “people” (el pueblo), rather than
employing the liberal democratic concept of pluralism, where competing
individual interests coincide. This view of the people as a homogenous
whole would become the primary source of polarizing
political-ideological conflicts.

One of the first polarizing conflicts in fact involved the definition of
the constitutional sovereign, or source of constitutional authority,
and how to best interpret the will of the people. In the 1999 National
Constituent Assembly, the sovereign was defined as a unitary,
indivisible mandate, rather like Rousseau’s concept of a singular and
unequivocal “general will.” In contrast to the 2008 Ecuadorian and 2009
Bolivian constitutions, Venezuela’s constituent members defined
themselves as representing the will of the people, as opposed to the
will of different regions; ethnic groups; or religious, social,
economic, and political interests.

From the beginning, this ruled out the conception of democracy as
something flowing upwards as an emergent property of polyarchic
institutions below, or of the state as being simply a platform to
facilitate the self-governance activity of such institutions. And in
practical terms, it meant that despite the lip-service paid to
participatory democracy in the communes, the communes would tend to be
treated as municipal corporations subject to the unitary sovereign
authority of the “people” emanating from above. So Venezuela wound up
once again reenacting the Westphalian state model of early modern
Europe, with all that it entailed — absolute,indivisible sovereignty,
“no state within the state,” etc. — in the minds of the civil lawyers
and politiques.

Miriam Lang, an associate professor for
Environmental and Sustainability Studies from Ecuador, adds that it
represents a broader problem of vanguardist culture in leftist electoral
movements undermining the autonomy and initiative of social movements.

One problem is that the progressive governments,
to the degree that their members came from social movement processes and
protests with a left-wing political identity, have taken on a sort of
vanguard identity, as if they know what people need. So spaces for
real dialogue and partnership with people of a diverse nature have been
lost. And political participation has become a type of applause for
whatever project the government leaders are proposing…. There are many
examples in European history that incline me to think this is an
inevitable dynamic, one that we underestimate a lot. The lefts that come
to lead in the state apparatus end up immersed in powerful dynamic
characteristic of those apparatuses and they are transformed as persons,
through the new spaces in which they move, because the logics of their
responsibilities provide them with other experiences and begin to shape
their political horizons as well as their culture. Their subjectivity is
transformed, they embody the exercise of power.

Despite all this, in my opinion a primary focus on constructing
counter-institutions — “building the new society within the shell of the
old” — and not attempting to initiate a rupture, should not imply a
refusal in principle to engage with the state in any way. Building
prefigurative institutions at the municipal level is not sufficient by
itself, without recognizing the real danger of repression by reactionary
forces at the nation-state level. Efforts like Syriza and Podemos have
been failures to the extent that they were tried as primary venues for
implementing post-capitalist transitional agendas; but they are
indispensable for running interference on behalf of the local,
prefigurative movements and giving them a safe space in which to grow.

Erik Olin Wright, while sympathetic to the interstitial approach, doubts
that it is sufficient by itself. Although he advocates interstitial
development of post-capitalist institutions as the primary strategy, it
is necessary to combine it with some form of social democratic

Interstitial strategies may create enlarged spaces for non-commodified,
non-capitalist economic relations, but it seems unlikely that this could
sufficiently insulate most people from dependency on the capitalist
economy and sufficiently weaken the power of the capitalist class and
the dependency of economic activity on capital accumulation to render
the transition trough in the revolutionary scenario short and shallow.
And while interstitial strategies may expand the scope of social
empowerment, it is difficult to see how they could ever by themselves
sufficiently erode the basic structural power of capital to dissolve the
capitalist limits on emancipatory social change.

Elsewhere he writes: “Eroding capitalism is not a fantasy. But it is
only plausible if it is combined with the social-democratic idea of
taming capitalism.”

We need a way of linking the bottom-up, society-centered strategic
vision of anarchism with the top-down, state-centered strategic logic of
social democracy. We need to tame capitalism in ways that make it more
erodible, and erode capitalism in ways that make it more

One reason for his pessimism is that Wright rejects the assumption that
capitalism is necessarily a system with an end as well as a beginning,
or that interstitial processes of creating counter-institutions can
exploit its systemic crises.

Nevertheless, Wright is not necessarily pessimistic about the idea of
post-capitalist transition as such. As noted in a previous chapter, he
sees a role for the symbiotic approach of engaging the state alongside
that of interstitial evolution in a larger metamorphic

While he is wrong to neglect the fundamental shift in correlation of
forces resulting from the terminal crises of capitalism interacting with
new technical possibilities for production in the commons, he is
entirely correct in my opinion in refusing to treat the state as a
monolithic entity and raising the possibility of engaging or
transforming parts of it. And the possibility of “non-reformist reforms”
should not be dismissed.

Negri and Hardt modified their strategic approach to some extent after
completing the Empire trilogy, accepting the need for some
admixture of verticalism within the overall horizontalist approach.

For one thing, there are pressing needs (the imminent dangers we face
from austerity, ecological destruction and the advance of fascism) that
won’t wait until the constituent process is complete and we’ve built a
new form of governance…. Another realm where counterpowers are needed…
regards the human necessities for food, health, and shelter, which can
be addressed in part through access to the common.

Despite her seemingly pessimistic analysis quoted earlier, Dinerstein
offered some hopeful advice for dual power movements on the ground and
leftist electoral parties, in their relations with each other. The
advice amounts, essentially, to the leftist parties standing to the side
and handing the mic to the prefigurative movements, and to the movements
constructing dual power to pressure the state toward a Partner State
institutional model coextensive with civil society.

The question then is not how can left governments encourage radical
change from the very institutions, political dynamics and structures of
the State? The question is in what ways can prefigurative movements,
grassroots innovative practices, and citizens’ initiatives push for a
prefigurative translation from the government? How can they prevent
the government of the Left from transforming their radical action into
governable practices, institutions, ideas, and legislation that will
obliterate the concrete utopian element of their actions?…

By prefigurative translation I mean an engagement with the creative
process of transformation that is already taking place at the
grassroots, within what I call the ‘beyond zone of movement collective
action’. Prefigurative translation is a form of translation that
requires co-construction of policy. But not only this. Such
co-construction must engage with what is already being proposed and
experienced by grassroots movements instead of attempting to filter
radical elements to prevent them from entering the policy realm….

If the party recognises that change comes from below, from the process
of deployment and expansion of movements’ alternative-creating capacity,
that is being experimented with in what I call the beyond zone of
movements activity, policy should be prefigurative too. This means
that the left in power should render visible what is already being
proposed and experienced at the grassroots. This does not mean to
‘learn’ from the movement’s alternatives, but to facilitate the
emergence of a collective intellect that can create alternative forms of
politics. That is to let the society in movement govern….

The vital goal of autonomous struggles is to overcome the
differentiation between the state and civil society.

Even acting from outside the state, elements of the existing system like
the procedural rules of the regulatory bureaucracies and the judicial
system can be turned against it and used as counterpowers. Negri and
Hardt write:

Absolutely essential in this effort is the work that so many are doing
today that use the legal means of national and international systems as
a kind of counterpower. Class action suits against polluting
corporations; human rights demands against war, torture, and police
abuse; and advocacy for refugees, migrants and inmates — these actions
use the power of the judge against that of the king, exploiting elements
of the legal system against the sovereign power.

Exploiting the capitalist state’s rules against it is a powerful,
low-cost weapon to impede their functioning. The state, like a demon, is
bound by the laws and internal logic of the form it takes. To borrow a
line from Ghostbusters, “Choose the form of the destructor.” When a
segment of the bureaucracy is captured by its own ideological
self-justification, or courts by the letter of the law, they can be used
as a weapon for monkey-wrenching the larger system. Bureaucrats, by
following the letter of policy, often unwittingly engage in
“work-to-rule” against the larger system they serve.

The state, like any authoritarian hierarchy, requires standing rules
that restrict the freedom of subordinates to pursue the institution’s
real purpose, because it can’t trust those subordinates. The state’s
legitimizing rhetoric, we know, conceals a real exploitative function.
Nevertheless, despite the overall functional role of the state, it needs
standard operating procedures to enforce predictable behavior on its

And once subordinates are following those rules, the state can’t send
out dog-whistles telling functionaries what “real” double-super-secret
rules they’re “really” supposed to follow, or to supplement the
countless volumes of rulebooks designed to impose predictability on
subordinates with a secret memo saying “Ignore the rulebooks.” So, while
enough functionaries may ignore the rules to keep the system functioning
after a fashion, others pursue the letter of policy in ways that impair
the “real” mission of the state.

Unlike the state and other authoritarian institutions, self-organized
networks can pursue their real interests while benefiting from their
members’ complete contribution of their abilities, without the hindrance
of standard operating procedures and bureaucratic rules based on
distrust. To put it in terms of St. Paul’s theology, networks can pursue
their interests single-mindedly without the concupiscence — the war in
their members — that weakens hierarchies.

So we can game the system, sabotaging the state with its own rules.

In Declaration, Negri and Hardt advocate a sort of symbiotic
relationship or division of labor between the horizontalist movements,
on the one hand, and more-or-less allied progressive parties within the

…From the 1990s to the first decade of this century, governments in
some of the largest countries in Latin America won elections and came to
power on the backs of powerful social movements against neoliberalism
and for the democratic self-management of the common. These elected,
progressive governments have in many cases made great social
advances…. When these governments are in power, however, and
particularly when they repeat the practices of the old regimes, the
social movements continue the struggle, now directed against the
governments that claim to represent them.

A quasi-institutional relationship has thus developed between social
movements and governments. Throughout the twentieth century, socialist
practices established a typology of such relationships as internal to
the political structure — the dynamic between trade union and party, for
example, was internal to the functioning of the party, and when in
power, socialist governments configured the activities of social
movements as within their ruling structures. That internal relation
derived from the fact (or assumption) that the union, the party, the
social movements, and the government operated according to the same
ideology, the same understanding of tactics and strategy, and even the
same personnel….

The socialist tradition that posits such an internal relationship
between social movements and parties or ruling institutions, however,
has been broken. Instead one of the characteristics we have observed in
these Latin American countries during this period is the decisive
externality and thus separation of the social movements with regard to
organizational practices, ideological positions, and political goals….

This external relationship between movements and governments has the
power to set in motion a significant transformation (and diminution) of
the directive aspects of government action. It could, in other words,
force the mechanisms of government to become processes of governance;
the sites on which different political and administrative wills are
engaged could become multiple and open; and the governing function can
dilute sovereign power to become instead an open laboratory of
consensual interventions and plural creations of legislative

Richard Bartlett (a cofounder of Loomio and participant in Enspiral)
hints at a similar division of labor, or rather cooperative coexistence,
in the new municipalist movements:

Another uncomfortable coalition you see in Spanish cities is the
collaboration between A) the people who understand the state apparatus
as a means of redirecting civil unrest into channels that support the
status quo, and B) the people who understand the state apparatus as one
of the most effective levers in catalysing social change. In most parts
of the world, this is a boring argument between radicals and liberals,
an endless ping pong match where each team claims to have the One True
Strategy while the Evil Others are undermining the struggle. In Spain
activists have made peace with this tension, courageously taking the
reins of institutional power while maintaining the grassroots mandate
and accountability. For example, the most radical political conference
I’ve been to was mindblowing not just because the speakers were
incredible, but especially when you consider the event was hosted by the
same people who run the Barcelona city government.

To name this tension between street movements and institutional power,
in Madrid they coined the term extitution…

Bernardo Gutiérrez described the concept this way: “If institutions are
organizational systems based on an inside-outside framework, extitutions
are designed as areas where a multitude of agents can spontaneously
assemble. Liquid, flexible, inclusive, itinerant, post-it

Daniel Chavez, in Uruguay, also takes a nuanced view of the division of
effort between social and political action, based on “my increasingly
pessimistic interpretation of the outcomes of our progressive of [sic]
left governments” in the so-called Pink Tide.

After having followed very closely the processes of Venezuela, Ecuador,
Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, and to a lesser extent also those of
Bolivia and Nicaragua, I think we should ask ourselves up to what point
is it possible for the left to get involved in government without losing
autonomy and our utopian perspective. In other word: is it possible to
operate within the state apparatus without being caught in the
demobilising logic of institutional power? Unlike some of the friends I
mentioned before, I don’t have a single or categorical answer to such
question. I still believe that the state has a very important role to
play, but I’m also convinced that it is now imperative for the left to
get rid of its obsolete state-centric vision and open up to fresh
perspectives like those of the commons.

In actual practice, governments like those of Evo Morales in Bolivia and
Chavez/Maduro in Venezuela which officially proclaimed an alliance with
social movements outside the state and avowed their support for popular,
libertarian socialist, or horizontal institutions, wound up frequently
undermining or sucking energy from such institutions, and pursuing the
kinds of developmentalist or extractivist agendas typically associated
with the authoritarian Left.

As part of a possible solution, Chavez suggests importing aspects of the
European municipalist model.

The side of the European left most active side in the promotion of the
commons is that linked to struggles around the right to the city and the
citizen platforms that won local office in several Spanish cities.
Today, an important part of the European left perceives the city as the
privileged space for political, social and economic experimentation,
without seeing cities as isolated entities or at the margin of processes
aimed at changing the state on a national scale, but recognising their
growing significance in the new regional and world order. It’s not by
chance that the fight against climate change or for the recovery of
public services are led by networks of progressive local
governments. Barcelona En Comú, the citizen coalition that now
governs the Catalan capital, in particular, is a very powerful source of
inspiration of regional and world importance…. Barcelona is today a
laboratory for the design and testing of multiple initiatives inspired
by the principle of the commons.

He also finds inspiration in Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals to reverse
Thatcher’s privatizations — but without organizing public enterprises on
Morrison’s managerial-statist model this time around.

But renationalisation, from this perspective, does not simply implies
that the state retakes control by going back to the obsolete state-owned
companies of the past, but rather the combination of different forms of
public ownership and management. In short, Labour proposes not merely to
re-nationalise companies that had been privatised during Thatcherism and
Blairism, but to reconvert the big banks and other financial
institutions that during the crisis had been saved from bankruptcy with
public monies into a network of local banks based on mixed ownership
(state and social), or the creation of new municipal utilities. The
party is committed to create new municipal utilities… that propose the
de-privatisation of power through the launch of new public enterprises,
rooted in a more democratic type of management based on the active
participation of users and workers, being environmentally sustainable,
and securing services with affordable rates for the entire

Even for Holloway, pressuring the state from outside occupies a
significant place in political strategy:

The problem of revolutionary politics is not to win power but to develop
forms of political articulation that would force those in power to obey
the people (so that, fully developed, the separation between state and
society would be overcome and the state effectively

Paul Mason is in the general autonomist tradition, insofar as he
envisions putting the primary emphasis on the spontaneous rise of new
institutional forms like peer networks, and treating state action as
simply a way to run interference for or boost these institutional forms,
rather than (as with the Old Left) the primary instrumentality for
actually creating the new society.

Still, he also sees the state playing a vital role in managing the
transition, certainly to a greater degree than in Holloway’s model, or
in Negri and Hardt’s horizontalist vision. All the individual elements —
cooperatives, peer-networks, and the like — will only coalesce into
post-capitalism if “we… promote them with regulation just as vigorous
as that which capitalism used to drive the peasants off the land or
destroy handicraft work in the eighteenth century.”
Post-capitalism may offer an “escape route” —

but only if these micro-level projects are nurtured, promoted and
protected by a massive change in what governments do.

…Collaborative production, using network technology to produce goods
and services that work only when they are free, or shared, defines the
route beyond the market system. It will need the state to create the

At the same time, he tries to leave open the possibility of diversity of
strategic approaches.

What happens to the state? It probably gets less powerful over time —
and in the end its functions are assumed by society. I’ve tried to make
this a project usable both by people who see states as useful and those
who don’t; you could probably model an anarchist version and a statist
version and try them out.

(And in fact what Mason calls the “wiki-state” is a lot
like the “Partner State.”)

Finally, most of these thinkers have largely abandoned, along with the
Old Left’s emphasis on insurrectionary transitions or abrupt changes of
regime, the distinction between “reform” and “revolution.”

Indeed Negri and Hardt, in Multitude, treat the distinction between
the two as meaningless.

We say this not because we think that reform and revolution are the same
thing, but that in today’s conditions they cannot be separated. Today
the historical processes of transformation are so radical that even
reformist proposals can lead to revolutionary change. And when
democratic reforms of the global system prove to be incapable of
providing the bases of a real democracy, they demonstrate even more
forcefully that a revolutionary change is needed and make it even more
possible. It is useless to rack our brains over whether a proposal is
reformist or revolutionary; what matters is that it enters into the
constituent process.

Harry Cleaver reads Marx as at least suggesting the possibility of a
gradual transition process. In his discussion in Critique of the Gotha
of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, Cleaver
notes, “Marx raises the question, but does not answer it, as to ‘what
social functions will remain in existence [in communist society] that
are analogous to present state functions?’” This amounts, among other
things, to “a general prophecy that capitalism — a mode of social
organization that itself took centuries to transform, to some degree,
virtually every nook and cranny of society — will not be done away with
all at once.” And, he adds, Marx himself does not specify what social
functions will remain in existence in communist society. At any rate
working class power is not an all or nothing thing. Over the years
workers have sometimes had, to a greater or lesser extent, “ the power
to determine elements of transformation and new alternatives.” And they
have exercised this power, at various times and places, “in many
different ways.”

We have often successfully struggled to transform aspects of the
capitalist world to better meet our needs and desires. We have also,
repeatedly, crafted more appealing alternatives. That we have not
succeeded in transforming all, or even most, aspects of capitalism and
that we have sometimes been unable to prevent our alternatives being
either crushed or co-opted, should neither blind us to our successes nor
prevent us from building on them to further transform “the present state
of things.”

Cleaver proposes, in place of the old distinction between reform and
revolution that dominated the Old Left, a new one by the Midnight Notes
Collective between “inside capitalism (i.e., consistent with its
dynamic) or outside of it (i.e., autonomous, constituting real
alternatives).” He quotes the Collective from their Promissory Notes

autonomous struggles strive to create social spaces and relations that
are as independent of and opposed to capitalist social relations as
possible. They may directly confront or seek to take over and reorganize
capitalist institutions (a factory, for example) or create new spaces
outside those institutions (e.g., urban gardening or a housing
cooperative) or access resources that should be common. They foster
collective, non-commodified relations, processes, and products that
function to some real degree outside of capitalist relations and give
power to the working class in its efforts to create alternatives to

This takes us back to Cleaver’s ruptural strategy of opening, expanding
and linking up spaces outside the logic of capital:

If Marx’s perception was correct, and I think our historical experience
since his time has confirmed it, we are no more likely to be able to
abolish money all at once than we are to abolish capitalism as a whole.
If so, then it seems to me, the most practical and productive way to
proceed is to examine the steps that we have taken in the past, and that
we might take in the future, to figure out how to advance progressively
toward both objectives. Those steps include both those that restrict the
sphere of money and exchange — while expanding spheres free of it — and
those that involve the diversion of money for our own purposes,
including funding programs designed to reduce or eliminate the need for
it. As we strive to marginalize and ultimately squeeze money, exchange,
markets, and capitalism entirely out of our lives, both kinds of steps
constitute a subversion of capital’s own use of money.

I don’t think any of the old privileged strategies of attacking the
state with the objective of abolishing it immediately and in toto, or
trying to build a cadre of professional revolutionaries to talk everyone
else into uniting to overthrow the government and seize state power, are
likely to be any more effective in getting us beyond capitalism in the
future than they have been in the past. Instead it seems to me that the
best we can do is to be clear about what, concretely, we want to get rid
of, and then set about trying to do so, while simultaneously fighting
for more time, space, and resources to experiment with, and elaborate
alternatives to virtually every aspect of capitalist

The time and space he writes of entail, specifically, the fight for
increased free time outside the wage relationship, and social spaces
that (to quote Promissory Notes again) “strengthen the commons
and expand de-commodified relationships and spaces.”

Social democratic versions [of the commons] include such things as
health care, education, social security — however imperfectly realized.
However, does the struggle also support bringing the bottom up,
expanding inclusiveness and participatory control? On the other hand,
are autonomous sectors able to avoid commodification (avoid being turned
into business products or services for sale)? Even if they cannot do so
completely, can they maintain a political stance and active behavior
that pushes towards non-commodity forms? More generally, how can the
working class on small or large scales create forms of exchange that are
or tend toward being de-commodified? Create markets (forms of exchange)
that do not rule lives and livelihoods? Reduce the reach of
commodification and capitalist markets on people’s life?

Marx himself, Cleaver also notes, supported reforms involving the
shortening of the work day, increased pay, and the like — not just as
exercises in building working class consciousness for the future
revolution, but in altering the balance of power here and now and
expanding the realm of freedom.

None of these objectives would end capitalism, but making gains in each
of these battles would strengthen workers, rupture existing forms of
capitalist command and exploitation, and bring about material
transformations in the organization of class relationships. It was the
success of workers’ struggles in forcing down the length of the working
day… that drove capitalists to invest more heavily in machinery,
reducing the amount of work required to produce each unit, and at least
potentially reducing the amount of work required to meet workers’ needs.
Success in increasing wages could have the same effect. Struggles to
either raise wages or limit capitalist efforts to reduce them could not
only preserve the material grounds of workers’ strength but also provide
experience in self-organization and militant action that would
facilitate future struggles.

André Gorz’s distinction between “reformist” and “non-reformist” reforms
is useful here. Gorz argued that, if the choice between capitalism and
socialism is seen as a one-time, all-or-nothing thing, so that no
evolution towards a post-capitalist society is possible so long as
capitalism exists, then labor is put in the strategically untenable
position of postponing all fights for material improvement until “after
the Revolution.” Although the workers’ movement risks having any
particular reform coopted by capitalism for its own purposes, it’s a
necessary risk compared to the certainty of irrelevance otherwise; since
insurrectionary seizure of power is impossible, doing nothing in the
meantime weakens labor’s position. Given this, one safeguard against
cooptation is to be consciously guided by the “non-reformist” standard
in pursuing reforms.

Is it possible from within — that is to say, without having previously
destroyed capitalism — to impose anti-capitalist solutions which will
not immediately be incorporated into and subordinated to the

…[A non-reformist reform bases the possibility of attaining its
objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic
changes. These changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But
in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they
assume that the workers will take over power or assert a force (that is
to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish,
maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to
weaken capitalism and to shake its joints….

…The only possible line for the movement is to seize, from the present
on, those powers which will prepare it to assume the leadership of
society and which will permit it in the meantime to control and to plan
the development of the society, and to establish certain limiting
mechanisms which will restrict or dislocate the power of

In other words, whether a reform is “reformist” or “non-reformist”
depends not on whether it presents an obvious and objective appearance,
to both capital and labor, of incompatibility with the present power
structure. It depends on how it will affect the long-term balance of
power between labor and capital, and be exploitable by the former as
leverage against the latter to impose still further concessions in the

Another criterion for distinguishing reformist from non-reformist
reforms is who controls the implementation.

Structural reform is by definition a reform implemented or controlled by
those who demand it. Be it in agriculture, the university, property
relations, the region, the administration, the economy, etc., a
structural reform always requires the creation of new centers of
democratic power.

Whether it be at the level of companies, schools, municipalities,
regions, or of the national Plan, etc., structural reform always
requires a decentralization of the decision making power, a
restriction on the powers of State or Capital, an extension of
popular power
, that is to say, a victory of democracy over dictatorship
of profit. No nationalization is in itself a structural

The alternatives can also be framed as “subordinate” vs. “autonomous”
powers. The pursuit of autonomous power is “a strategy of progressive
conquest of power by the workers…”

…To assert that every reform, so long as political hegemony does not
belong to the working class, is of a reformist character and only
results in a preservation of the system, making it more tolerable, is to
argue from a fallacious schematicism insofar as workers’ power is
concerned. For while it is true that every reform (for example,
nationalization and economic planning) is absorbed a system and ends up
by consolidating it so long as it leaves the power of the capitalist
state intact, and as long as it leaves the execution and administration
of the reform in the hands of the State alone, it is also true,
inversely, that every conquest of autonomous powers by the working
class, whether these powers be institutionalized or not, will not
attenuate class antagonisms but, on the contrary, will accentuate them,
will yield new opportunities for attacking the system, will make the
system not more but less tolerable by sharpening the conflict between
the human demands of the workers and the inert needs of capital. One
must indeed be a poor Marxist to believe that in the framework of the
capitalist relationships of production, the fundamental contradictions
between labor and capital can be attenuated to the point of becoming
acceptable when the workers’ local conquest of power gives them a richer
and more concrete consciousness of their power as a

Paul Mason writes, similarly, of policy measures that, by shifting
bargaining power and lowering the rate of extraction, simultaneously
promote both postcapitalist transition and liberal capitalism in the
interim. In the event of a city like Barcelona adopting basic income and
promoting commons-based peer production, he asks,

Would capitalism collapse?

No. The desperate, frantic “survival capitalists” would go away — the
rip-off consultancies; the low-wage businesses; the rent-extractors.

But you would attract the most innovative capitalists on earth, and you
would make the city vastly more livable for the million-plus people who
call it home.

Regarding the rather slippery distinction between “reform” and
“revolution,” and the question of the relationship of commons-based
counter-institutions to the existing system in the interim, Vangelis
Papadimitropoulos’s threefold classification schema of analytic
approaches is useful.

Whereas the liberal theory places the Commons between the state and the
market, the reformist theory argues for the reforms necessary that could
force capitalism to adjust to the Commons in the long run. In contrast
to both the liberal and the reformist, the anti-capitalist theory
supports the development of the Commons against and beyond

That is, the liberal theory assumes the commons will coexist alongside
state and market, as parts within a functional division of labor, as a
normal state of affairs which persists indefinitely. The reformist
theory views capitalism as a system with an end, but sees that end as a
gradual process that will be brought about by capitalism adjusting to
the commons over the long run. The commons will “replace capitalism from
within, just as capitalism did with feudalism…. Commons-based peer
production can beat capitalism on its own ground: that is, competition.
Technology can render the Commons more competitive in relation to
capitalism and pave the way for a post-capitalist ethical economy
supported by a partner state.”

The anti-capitalist view, as represented by George Caffentzis and Silvia
Federici, agrees with the reformists that capitalism will come to an
end. In the meantime, the commons serve as an ecology of
counter-institutions that protect us from the worst aspects of
capitalism and also serve as the seeds of the post-capitalist society:

From the ‘free software’ to the ‘solidarity economy’ movement, a whole
world of new social relations is coming into existence based on the
principle of communal sharing, sustained by the realization that
capitalism has nothing to give us except more misery and divisions.
Indeed, at a time of permanent crisis and constant assaults on jobs,
wages, and social spaces, the construction of commons – ‘time banks’,
urban gardens, Community Supported Agriculture, food coops, local
currencies, ‘creative commons’ licenses, bartering practices –
represents a crucial means of survival. In Greece, in the last two
years, as wages and pensions have been cut on average by 30 percent and
unemployment among youth has reached 50 percent, various forms of mutual
aid have appeared, like free medical services, free distributions of
produce by farmers in urban centres, and the ‘reparation’ of the
electrical wires disconnected because the bills were not paid.

However, commoning initiatives are more than dikes against the
neoliberal assault on our livelihood. They are the seeds, the embryonic
form of an alternative mode of production in the make. This is how we
should view also the squatters’ movements that have emerged in many
urban peripheries, signs of a growing population of city dwellers
‘disconnected’ from the formal world economy, now reproducing themselves
outside of state and market control.

Anti-capitalist commons, then, should be conceived as both autonomous
spaces from which to reclaim control over the conditions of our
reproduction, and as bases from which to counter the processes of
enclosure and increasingly disentangle our lives from the market and the
state. Thus they differ from those advocated by the Ostrom School, where
commons are imagined in a relation of coexistence with the public and
with the private. Ideally, they embody the vision that Marxists and
anarchists have aspired to but failed to realize: that of a society made
of ‘free associations of producers’, self-governed and organized to
ensure not an abstract equality but the satisfaction of people’s needs
and desires. Today we see only fragments of this world (in the same way
as in late Medieval Europe we may have seen only fragments of
capitalism) but already the commons we build should enable us to gain
more power with regard to capital and the state and embryonically
prefigure a new mode of production, no longer built on a competitive
principle, but on the principle of collective

They differ from the reformists in that they see no point in trying to
change the character of capitalist institutions in the interim, or shift
the capitalist system from within. In fact attempting to do so carries
the risk of cooptation, with capitalism incorporating free and
open-source information into its physical production models and thereby
prolonging its own life.

They argue that the digital or immaterial Commons cannot have an
autonomous substance in their own right, as they depend for their
reproduction on both capitalism and the material commons. The digital or
immaterial Commons should connect instead to the material Commons and
form an alliance of anti-capitalistic Commons developing against

But as Papadimitropoulos points out, the fact that both reformists and
anti-capitalists see the end of capitalism as a prolonged process, in
which the commons exist within the interstices of the old society,
renders the precise boundary between them rather unclear.

What both the liberal and the anti-capitalist versions of the Commons…
miss is the likelihood of technology bridging the gap between material
and immaterial production, thus challenging the monopoly of capitalism
on the means and resources of production. The combination of the
Internet, free software, 3D printers and artificial technology may
render large-scale material production redundant, forcing corporations
to adapt in the long run to the decentralisation and commonification of
production. Therefore, the model of an open cooperativism between
ethical market entities, the partner state and the Commons carries
significant potential for the future development of the Commons, since
corporatism and the state are not going to wither away anytime

What the anti-capitalist version misses in comparison to the reformist
is a ‘realistic’ plan of a transition from capitalism to the

Most importantly, I would argue, the two approaches — exodus by means of
a counter-economy created outside the capitalist system, on the one
hand, and shifting the character of the overall system and its legacy
institutions from within on the other — are not mutually exclusive.
Regardless of what terminology is used, the fact of the matter is that
all commons-based institutions, no matter how anti-capitalist the intent
of those participating them, will interact to some extent with the
capitalist system as a matter of simple necessity. Since the
anti-capitalists themselves recognize that the commons will exist
alongside capitalism for some indeterminate period of time, there’s no
reason the commons cannot condition the institutions of capital and
state at the same time they’re constructing the successor society.

What’s more, institutions that were governed by the core logic of one
system may well navigate the systemic transition while maintaining the
same name and some degree of institutional continuity, despite a change
in character corresponding to their relationship to the changing larger
system in which they are embedded. A craft guild in 1500 might have the
same name as, and organizational continuity with, a craft guild that
existed in 1200; yet in the one case it would be a mercantile capitalist
corporation, and in the other a democratically governed federation of
master craftsmen, with its character in both cases defined by the
respective capitalist and feudal systems of which it was a part.

Massimo De Angelis sees the task of the commons movement as not only to
build a counter-economy outside the state and capital, but also to shift
the character of the state and capital themselves in a more commons-like
direction through engagement with them.

A commons movement is not simply a movement against the valuation
processes and injustices of capital as well as the hierarchies of the
state, but a movement that seek [sic] to commonalize many functions now
both in private and state hands, especially those functions that have to
do with social reproduction, and that define the quality and the quality
of services available….

Aside from the strategy of creating commons from the ground up…, another
strategy is to commonalize its existing private or public systems and
transform them into resilient organisations, which in turn imply [sic],
much deeper democratisation and cooperation, namely basic commons

The objective to turn more and more spheres of societies into
sustainable and resilient spheres thus coincides with that of adopting
commons as a central kernel of the architecture of a new mode of
production integrating many types of modes of production….

Commonalisation means to shift a public or private organisation into a
commons or, more likely, into a web of interconnected and nested commons
giving shape to metacommonality, with the overarching goal of

For a public institution or private corporation, commonalisation does
not mean that a given final result is optimal, but that a process has
begun along which there is a collective effort, through the commoners’
democratic management of constraints, costs, and rewards, to increase
all sorts of commoning across different social actors involved in the
corporation or public service….

  • the parameter of democracy: democratisation of a state service or a
    corporation along a scale that has as its two opposite poles
    management versus direct democracy…;

  • maximum accountability and transparency and the ability to recall
    every public servant… and other stakeholder involved in the
    production of the service;

  • opening the boundaries between different types of practices and
    subjects thus allowing maximum cognitive diversity as well as
    increasing the porosity of the system boundaries to a variety of
    subjects, knowledges and practices….

He mentions Barcelona en Comu as an example, with experiments like
participatory budgeting and open policy proposal wikis.

Likewise, he refers to the commons being able to make use of capital on
favorable terms “because there is an echo of the commons inside capital
or state systems, and thus it is possible to define meta-commonal
relations across capital, state and commons.” It is
important to remember that state agencies and capitalist corporations
are not monoliths; they are governed by hierarchies precisely because
the individuals and social groups within them all have interests that
may not coincide with the official goals of the organization or the
interests of its leadership, so that it becomes necessary to resort to
power relations in order to enclose their cooperative interactions —
interactions that may function, internally, on the basis of something
like Graeber’s “everyday communism” — as sources of value for the

As previously noted, authoritarian institutions are always subject to
concupiscence, the kind of “war within their members” that St. Paul
described in the individual. We already saw how this plays out in
bureaucracies being hamstrung by their own internal rule. But it also
shows itself through the converse: the fact that they’re made up of
human beings with minds of their own who sometimes don’t stick to the

The commons sector can often hope to find friendly individuals and
subcultures within the “Belly of the Beast.” We can pursue tactical
alliances with dissident subgroups within the state bureaucracy,
appealing to their genuine attachment to the stated missions of the
agencies they work for in ways that undermine their real missions.

Bollier and Helfrich take a similar view of the state, arguing that an
understanding of how state power works leads to the inference that there
is “no such thing as the state.”

A relational approach to state power helps us envision all sorts of
piecemeal ways of advancing the commons. All can contribute to a more
consequential, transformative agenda that will reconfigure power
relations 1) within the state institutions; and 2) between them and
commoners. If we can focus on the different agents and layers of state
power instead of the fictional monolith known as “the state,” we can
imagine other ways of involving the public in the day-to-day business of
governing. We can get a glimpse of the possibilities in open platforms
that invite citizens to help city councils in urban planning, government
websites that encourage citizen feedback about public services,
participatory budgeting programs that let citizens make spending
decisions, and government support for co-housing and volunteer networks
for the elderly. A fruitful collaboration between a commons and the
state can arise because commoners can provide services that neither
commercial enterprises nor government agencies can or want to

Once we choose to see the state not as an omnipotent monolith but as a
configuration of power that varies a great deal and is even parochial
and vulnerable in certain respects, we can begin to imagine ways to
alter state power in piecemeal ways, as opportunities arise. We can see
how social practices and relations can help us transform state power, at
least at some incremental level. While modalities of governance and
state authority vary immensely, people in more intimate local contexts
experience politics as more accessible, adaptable, and

Much of the disagreement on the Left about the role of electoral
politics results from the lack of a common understanding of its purpose.
Take, for example, the conflict between those who vote for an
establishment Democratic Party nominee in the interest of harm
reduction, and those who say “the two parties are the same.” It is a
mistake in my opinion to view electoral politics as the primary means of
pursuing progressive change. Voting for the “lesser evil” is not
necessarily “liberal” or “reformist”; rather, it is fully compatible
with an interstitialist approach that sees the development of
counter-institutions outside the state as the primary means of building
the successor society. In this view, one votes the lesser evil — e.g.,
voting for an establishment Democrat against Trump — in order to stave
off the worst of the immediate fascist threat and buy time, and to
create breathing space for the primary project of building
counter-institutions. The purpose of electoral politics is not to build
the successor society, but to create the least unfavorable background
conditions for doing so.

So while promoting candidates like Sanders or Corbyn is worthwhile as a
long-shot effort at creating an especially favorable environment — who
wouldn’t prefer pursuing interstitial development against a background
of universal healthcare, basic income, drastically reformed copyright,
or cooperatively-governed public services? — even replacing Trump with
someone who is not Trump is a real and significant improvement. To argue
otherwise entails some accelerationist assumptions (“the worse, the
better,” etc.) that do not bear close scrutiny.

Immanuel Wallerstein advocated a similar strategy of simultaneously
engaging the state with the primary goal of mitigating harm, and
building independent social structures of our own. There is no way of
avoiding the necessity for

short-term defensive action, including electoral action. The world’s
populations live in the present, and their immediate needs have to be
addressed. Any movement that neglects them is bound to lose the
widespread passive support that is essential for its long-term success.
But the motive and justification for defensive action should not be that
of remedying a failing system but rather of preventing its negative
effects from getting worse in the short run.

But this must be combined with “the establishment of interim,
middle-range goals that seem to move in the right direction.”

I would suggest that one of the most useful — substantively,
politically, psychologically — is the attempt to move towards selective,
but ever-widening, decommodification…. Industries, especially failing
industries, should be decommodified. This does not mean they should be
‘nationalized’ — for the most part, simply another version of
commodification. It means we should create structures, operating in the
market, whose objective is performance and survival rather than profit.
This can be done, as we know, from the history of universities or
hospitals — not all, but the best. Why is such a logic impossible for
steel factories threatened with delocalization?

In my opinion, the key to a division of labor is adopting ahead of time
an understanding aimed at preventing political parties from sucking the
energy and life out of the counter-institution building effort in civil
society, and diverting it instead into parliamentary politics. The
solution is to establish ahead of time that the primary axis of
post-capitalist construction is interstitial, i.e., actually building
the successor society here and now. Electoral politics and participation
in the policy process is entirely secondary and auxiliary.

But it requires a realist approach to the division of labor, which will
persist regardless of whether the political arm achieves state power.
The social movements must be firm in their understanding that their
purpose is to construct the successor society within the interstices of
the existing one, through the creation and development of
counter-institutions, regardless of who controls the state. And they
must be openly resolved not to defer to the party in power, even if it
is an offshoot of their own movement, or allow it to constrain their
range of alternatives. As Bollier and Helfrich put it,

social movements are more likely to be transformative if they develop
parallel economies with structural independence from the conventional
market/state. This means also that commons are more likely to survive
and retain their independence if they are less entangled with the
conventional economy and state power, and if they can rely on internal
systems (Peer Governance, knowledge-sharing, federated support from
other commoners) for resilience. At the same time, it is imperative to
engage with state power through elections and traditional advocacy, if
only because that field of action can change the conditions for widening
spaces of commonality. It is too consequential to be ignored.

So commoners need a two-track mindset in dealing with state power: a
primary focus on building the new — keeping the conceptual insights
above in mind — while also attempting to neutralize the

And while the electoral or revolutionary party is still entirely an
opposition party, with no immediate hope for power, it must be given to
understand that the social movements will not recognize its authority to
restrain their efforts in constructing the successor society. The
political arm’s central purpose, whether in or out of power, is to run
political interference on behalf of the social movements, and to
maximize their space for independent action — whether it be through
popular mobilization against domestic and international forces, or in
negotiations with neoliberal actors abroad. In face both the political
and social arms must operate from the explicit understanding that the
latter will always maintain their entire independence, and will not be
bound by any concessions made by the political arm (as was the case with
Syriza in its negotiations with the European Central Bank). Rather, it
is to be understood that the entire autonomy of the social movements
will serve to cloak the political arm with plausible deniability,
enabling it to play “good cop” in negotiating with the United States,
IMF or whomever, and to say “We’d like to grant this concession, but we
have no authority to enforce it on the local communes. If we make a deal
they don’t like, they’ll just do something even more radical than
they’re doing now.”

[Last Edited October 7, 2020]

Part Three. Seeds beneath the Snow

Chapter Nine: The Commons Sector and the Theory of Municipalism


Throughout this book, we have made repeated references to the existence
of a parallel commons-based economy alongside the capitalist one, the
terminal crisis tendencies of capitalism, and the interstitial
coalescence of the commons-based economy as a successor to the dying
capitalist system. But the discussion has been mostly theoretical up to
this point, and needs to be fleshed out in concrete terms.

Accordingly, this final section of the book has two general themes (both
of which will be frequently referenced throughout, rather than being
treated sequentially). First, the actual building blocks of the
post-capitalist society. We already examined, in Chapter Two, the ways
in which changes in production and communications technology have
rendered obsolete the Old Left focus on seizing the means of production;
and we examined, in subsequent chapters, the implications of general
trends like the social factory and the growing importance of our social
relationships as sources of productivity for revolutionary strategy.
Now, having examined the forest, we take a closer look at the trees.

We’re not simply adopting more decentralized production technologies or
organizational forms, but coalescing all these building blocks into a
fundamentally different economic paradigm. The problem to date is that
technologies have been selected for or against based on the values of a
larger system of control. Fortunately, for reasons already discussed,
this system has become unsustainable and is in the process of
disintegrating. In creating the successor system, we must select for the
technologies and organizational forms that serve our needs for survival,
as the system we formerly depended on decays.

These new technologies and social forms by themselves would be of
limited significance if we had no reason to expect their widespread
adoption. Regardless of their abstract superiority in terms of material
efficiency or amenability to human nature, these things might remain
largely theoretical for the indefinite future absent some plausible way
of overcoming the inertias and path dependencies of the present system.

This leads us to our second theme: the crisis conditions of capitalism
as a system, and the crisis conditions of capitalism in everyday lives
of ordinary people, intersect with the new liberatory possibilities of
the new technologies and social forms to create a “perfect storm.” In a
time of declining total work hours, underemployment and precarity, and
the collapse of state- and employer-based social safety nets, the
“killer app” of the commons-based counter-economy and direct production
for use is survival. As Neal Gorenflo explained the inspiration for the
title for an anthology:

About six months ago, a weather-beaten, middle-age man asked me for
money on the platform of the Mountain View Caltrain station.

I gave him three dollars. He thanked me, and asked what I did for work.
I introduced myself, learned his name (Jeff) and we shook hands. I
pulled out a card from my computer bag, and handed it to him as I told
him that I publish an online magazine about sharing.

Jeff lit up, “Oh I get that, when you’re homeless, it’s share or

This “killer app” function of direct production for use, in the parallel
social economy, is at the heart of the “Plenitude” that Juliet Schor
promotes as a model for post-capitalist transition.

As individuals take up the principles of plenitude, they are not merely
adopting a private response to what is perforce a collective problem.
Rather, they are pioneers of the micro (individual-level) activity that
is necessary to create the macro (system-wide)

It amounts to a “parallel economy developing” — of necessity — “amid the
wreckage of the collapse.”

Luis Razeto Migliaro, in a book on the solidarity economy, frames it as
something like the stone that the builders refused:

The skills and competencies of the popular sector, which are superfluous
to the demands of the market and the world of formal economy, have not
gone unused just because the companies and the State fail to employ
them. Having been excluded from both employment and consumption in the
formal sector, and still facing the crucial challenge of subsistence,
the world of the poor has become economically activated, giving rise to
the many different activities and organizations which make up what we
call the “popular economy.”

The popular economy combines traditional resources and capacities for
labor, technology, organization, and commerce with others of a modern
type, giving rise to an incredibly heterogeneous and varied
proliferation of activities oriented to securing subsistence and the
means of daily life. It thrives and expands by seeking out interstices
and opportunities in the market, finding ways to make use of benefits
and resources provided by public services and subsidies, and inserting
itself into projects promoted by non-governmental organizations.
Sometimes it even manages to reconstruct reciprocal and cooperative
economic relations of the type that predominated in more traditional
forms of economic organization.

He divides it up into three main categories of activity:

  1. Labor for personal benefit, performed by innumerable independent
    workers who create goods, provide services, or sell on a small scale, be
    it at home, on the street, in the public square, on public transport, at
    community fairs, or other places where people gather. In a study of
    self-employed workers in Chile, three hundred distinct informal
    “occupations” were identified.

  2. Family micro-enterprises, operated by one to three people, preparing
    goods or selling on a small scale, using their living space or an
    adjacent space for a workplace and store. The phenomenon of
    micro-enterprises has become so widespread in the popular districts of
    the big cities of Latin America that it is normal to find them in one of
    every four or five homes.

  3. Popular economic organizations, that is, small groups or associations
    of people or families who collectively manage their scant resources so
    as to develop activities that generate income or provide services to
    satisfy the basic needs of work, food, health, education, housing, etc.
    on a basis of cooperation and mutual aid. Solidarity workshops, housing
    committees, “buying together,” community utilities, “building together,”
    family gardens, and community development programs are some of the most
    widespread types.

And this popular economy has arisen and expanded, not as a temporary
phenomenon, but as a long-term response to crisis tendencies of
capitalism which force “the poor and the marginalized to find in
themselves the necessary forces for subsistence.”

Ben Reynolds describes it, similarly, as capitalism eroding its own

At the same time, capitalism gnaws away at its own foundations. While
industrial capital centralizes, distributed production places a widening
range of productive technologies in the hands of individuals. Some of
these technologies facilitate capitalism’s growth, but others foretell
something different. Instead of producing things for exchange and
profit, people cooperate with one another and produce things directly
for their own use. They eschew private property and copyright, sharing
goods freely.

In this new world, scarcity is artificial. Armed with their own
machines, the people square off against industrial capital and they
often win. There is a cost to this victory. The rise of a mode of
production based on freely shared work and use cannot simply coexist
with wage labor and exchange value. While it remains trapped within a
capitalist society, distributed production cannot flourish to its full
extent. Instead, it acts as a steadily growing vision of a new world
within the shell of the old: a world without scarcity and a world
without labor.

Silvia Federici sees such measures as a response not only to economic
pressures in the wake of the 2008 crash, but to the austerity promoted
around the world by the Washington Consensus over the past several

It is not a coincidence that in the last few years, in Greece, as wages
and pensions have been cut on average by 30 percent and unemployment
among youth has reached 50 percent, several forms of mutual aid have
appeared, including free medical services, free distributions of produce
by farmers in urban centers, and the ‘repair’ by electricians of wires
that were cut because the bills were not paid.

But all these expedients are more than just a reaction to immediate
circumstances. They’re the beginnings of a new world that will be
thriving long after capitalism is gone.

We must stress, however, that the commoning initiatives we see
proliferating around us — ‘time banks,’ urban gardens,
community-supported agriculture, food co-ops, local currencies, Creative
Commons licenses, bartering practices, information sharing — are more
than dikes against the neoliberal assault on our livelihood. They are
experiments in self-provisioning and the seeds of an alternative mode of
production in the making. This is also how we should view the squatters’
movements that have formed in many urban peripheries throughout the
world since the 1980s, products of land expropriations but also signs of
a growing population of city dwellers ‘disconnected’ from the formal
world economy, now organizing their reproduction outside of state and
market control. As Raúl Zibechi suggests, these urban land squats are
better envisioned as a “planet of commons.”…

I. The Growth of the Commons Sector As a Lifeline

Although many Leftists dismiss exodus-based strategies as “lifestylism,”
they are in fact building a counter-system that — for all the reasons
examined in Chapter Two — uses resources more efficiently than

We live in a time of terminal crisis for centralized institutions of all
kinds, including their two most notable forms: states and large
corporations. Both a major cause and major symptom of this transition is
the steady reduction in the amount of labor needed to produce a given
level of output, and consequently in total aggregate demand for wage
labor. This shows up in shrinking rates of workforce participation, and
a shift of a growing part of the remaining workforce from full-time work
to part-time and precarious employment (the latter including temporary
and contract work). Another symptom is the retrenchment of the state in
the face of fiscal crisis and a trend towards social austerity in most
Western countries; this is paralleled by a disintegration of traditional
employer-based safety nets, as part of the decline in full-time

The same technological trends that are reducing the total need for labor
also, in many cases, make direct production for use in the informal,
social and household economies much more economically feasible. Cheap
open-source CNC machine tools, networked information and digital
platforms, Permaculture and community gardens, alternative currencies
and mutual credit systems, all reduce the scale of feasible production
for many goods to the household, multiple household and neighborhood
levels, and similarly reduce the capital outlays required for directly
producing consumption needs to a scale within the means of such

Put all these trends together, and we see the old model of secure
livelihood through wages collapsing at the same time new technology is
destroying the material basis for dependence on corporations and the

But like all transitions, this is a transition not only from something,
but to something. That something bears a more than passing resemblance
to the libertarian communist future Pyotr Kropotkin described in The
Conquest of Bread
and Fields, Factories and Workshops: the
relocalization of most economic functions into mixed
agricultural/industrial villages, the control of production by those
directly engaged in it, and a fading of the differences between town and
country, work and leisure, and brain-work and muscle-work.

In particular, it is to a large extent a transition to a post-capitalist
society centered on the commons.

Micro-Manufacturing and Self-Provisioning. It’s fortuitous that the
same cheap, ephemeral small-scale production technologies that are
helping to bring about the terminal crisis of capitalism from surplus
capital, are also offering a safety net for those unemployed or
underemployed by the dying capitalist system.

Historically, the household sector has presented something of a dilemma
to capital. Throughout the history of capitalism, according to Immanuel
Wallerstein, workers have used the household as a unit for pooling
risks, costs and income among laborers and non-laborers. Capital has
encouraged this household economy insofar as it externalizes the
reproduction of labor power on society at large, so that unpaid labor
carries out the reproduction of labor power. At the same time, it has
balanced this strategy against the need to prevent the household from
getting so large that its risk and cost-pooling functions lead to an
unacceptable increase in the bargaining power of labor. “The household
as an income-pooling unit can be seen as a fortress both of
accommodation to and resistance to the patterns of labor-force
allocation favored by accumulators.”

This is true of the commons in general, as Brigitte Kratzwald argues:

The ambivalence of the commons in capitalism stems from one of
capitalism’s biggest contradictions: capital cannot reproduce itself. In
order to survive, it needs resources from outside. This is one reason
why, in opposition to other opinions, capitalism can never be a
totality; several modes of production exist simultaneously in every
society. The sources from which capital takes what it needs so that the
production of added value can function are unpaid work (usually from
women), natural resources, and commons. Capital is very successful in
making commons and other resources outside of itself useful for its own

On the other hand… the production, use, and tending of commons creates
a certain amount of independence from the dominant system for

As James O’Connor noted in Accumulation Crisis, mass consumption has
been “an Achilles heel of capitalism.”

This is so because of the irreducible autonomy of the process of
reproduction of labor-power…. [Reproduction takes place] outside
capitalist relations of production. This means that in the model of full
capitalism individual workers and their families utilize accumulated
stocks of “means of subsistence production,” e.g., housing, consumer
durables. While this creates potentials for capital to shift the burden
of reproduction costs of labor-power to the household and community, it
also creates potentials for the working class to hoard labor-power or
withdraw labor-power from capital on a mass basis.

In regard to the latter, “the accumulated stocks of means and objects of
reproduction within the household and community took the edge off the
need for alienated labor.”

Further, O’Connor observed, labor has tended to respond to cyclical
periods of reduced employment by shifting the means by which it obtains
its needs in part from wage labor to self-provisioning, or direct
production for use in the household and social sector.

Labor-power was hoarded through absenteeism, sick leaves, early
retirement, the struggle to reduce days worked per year, among other
ways. Conserved labor-power was then expended in subsistence
production…. The living economy based on non- and anti-capitalist
concepts of time and space went underground: in the reconstituted
household; the commune; cooperatives; the single-issue organization; the
self-help clinic; the solidarity group. Hurrying along the development
of the alternative and underground economies was the growth of
underemployment (full employment at less than a living wage), which
originated in the expulsion of living labor from large-scale capitalist
enterprise, and mass unemployment associated with the crisis of the
1980s. “Regular” employment and union-scale work contracted, which
became an incentive to develop alternative, local modes of production.

During the 1970s, localized, fragmented, anarchic, and half-formed
struggles squeezed capital from all sides. New social relationships of
reproduction and alternative employment, including the informal and
underground economies, threatened not only labor discipline, but also
capitalist markets. Demands to employ local savings in credit unions and
local cooperatives threatened capital’s control of money and credit.
Alternative technologies threatened capital’s monopoly on technological
development. Environmental movements which fought to prevent resources
from becoming commodities (or to decommodify resources) threatened
capital’s control of land, natural resources, and energy sources.
Hoarding labor-power threatened capital’s domination of production.
Withdrawal of labor-power undermined basic social disciplinary
mechanisms and capital’s control of the supply of labor.

And the present ongoing decline in demand for labor — i.e., since 2000 —
is not cyclical. It’s systemic. It follows that workers will, as a
matter of necessity, permanently shift a growing share of production
into the social or informal economy. As Juliet Schor describes it:

Work less in the declining market, but use those freed-up hours
productively, to invest in new skills and activities. Some of the time
will be deployed to replace higher-priced food, energy, and consumer
goods with homemade or community-produced alternatives. Some will be
used to invest in social relationships, another form of wealth. And some
hours will be spent in high-return leisure activities requiring
relatively little monetary outlay. These substitute for the expensive
commodities of the faster-paced, higher-income

Schor cites a University of Michigan scholar, Frithjof Bergmann, who
wrote during the recession of the early ‘80s of what he called the New
Work — a strategy for dealing with industrial stagnation and
unemployment — in terms much like O’Connor’s:

Bergmann’s system had three components: First, radically cut hours in
factories, to about twenty per week, in a bid to preserve jobs. Second,
help under- and unemployed workers figure out their life’s calling, that
is, the type of work they most wanted to be doing, and support them to
get going with it, irrespective of whether it would yield income. And
third, promote a series of advanced or smart-technology methods for
producing the basics of life without arduous labor. His term was
high-tech self-providing.

Thanks to open-source tabletop CNC routers, milling machines, lathes,
cutting tables, 3D printers and so on that can be built for tiny
fractions of what their proprietary commercial counterparts cost, direct
production of consumption goods and household appliances for use is more
economically feasible than ever.

As far back as the 1920s and ‘30s, Ralph Borsodi was arguing that the
growing proliferation of small-scale powered machinery was making it
more economical to produce a major share of consumption goods directly
in the household than to work for wages to buy them from factories.

Colin Ward advocated community workshops as a means by which the
employed and unemployed could pool their individually owned tools,
reduce idle capacity, and satisfy an increased share of consumption
needs outside the wage system.

Couldn’t the workshop become the community factory, providing work or a
place for work for anyone in the locality who wanted to work that ay,
not as an optional extra to the economy of the affluent society which
rejects an increasing proportion of its members, but as one of the
prerequisites of the worker-controlled economy of the

He quoted Keith Paton, writing in a pamphlet for the Claimants’ Union,
that “electrical power and ‘affluence’ have brought a spread of
intermediate machines, some of them very sophisticated, to ordinary
working class communities.”

Even if they do not own them… the possibility exists of borrowing them
from neighbours, relatives, ex-workmates. Knitting and sewing machines,
power tools and other do-it-yourself equipment comes in this category.
Garages can be converted into little workshops, home-brew kits are
popular, parts and machinery can be taken from old cars and other
gadgets. If they saw their opportunity, trained metallurgists and
mechanics could get into advanced scrap technology, recycling the metal
wastes of the consumer society for things which could be used again
regardless of whether they would fetch anything in a shop. Many hobby
enthusiasts could begin to see their interests in a new

Karl Hess advocated a similar approach — “shared machine shops” — in
Community Technology. It might be hosted in “some other public
facility, used in its off hours,” he wrote, or hosted in its own
dedicated space. Besides pooling individual power tools, as Ward
described, Hess also suggested stocking it with “cast-off industrial
tools, with tools brought from government surplus through the local
school system,” etc. Such a machine shop in an inner city might be used
“for the maintenance of appliances and other household goods whose
replacement might represent a real economic burden in the neighborhood.”
Combined with a neighborhood storehouse for left-over construction
materials, defunct appliances, and so on, the machine shop could:

redesign cast-off items into useful ones. Discarded refrigerators, for
instance, suggest an infinity of new uses, from fish tanks… to
numerous parts as each discarded one is stripped for its components,
which include small compressors, copper tubing, heat transfer arrays,
and so on. The same goes for washing machines….

A good example of the potential of present-day technology is the Global
Village Construction Set, a collection of open-source machine tools
designed, prototyped and built at Open Source Ecology’s Factor e Farm
demonstration site. It’s an entire ecosystem of machine tools. Along
with the micro-manufacturing machinery (3D printer, laser cutter, drill
press and fourteen other machines), the GVCS includes construction
machinery (sawmill, compressed earth block maker, etc.), farm machinery
(tractor, etc.), and household production goods like a bread oven. Most
of the components of the machines — many of which are modular and used
throughout the entire ecology of designs — can be produced with the
Construction Set’s own machine tools, and the inclusion of an induction
hearth in the manufacturing collection means they can not only smelt
metal from local scrap, but their own production is
closed-loop. Most of the individual manufacturing
machines can be made for anywhere from a thousand (most common) to a few
thousand dollars in materials; a few super expensive items (e.g. $50,000
for a machine to extract aluminum from clay) would obviously have to be
a shared resource between a number of shops in a larger community. And
the open-source car, truck and combine run a mid-range price of $8,000
or more.

Local industrial ecologies grow, as Jane Jacobs described it in The
Economy of Cities
, by discovering creative uses for locally generated
waste and byproducts, and using such innovative technologies to replace
imports. Here’s how she describes the process of import

Cities that replace imports significantly replace not only finished
goods but, concurrently, many, many items of producers’ goods and
services. They do it in swiftly emerging, logical chains. For example,
first comes the local processing of fruit preserves that were formerly
imported, then the production of jars or wrappings formerly imported for
which there was no local market of producers until the first step had
been taken. Or first comes the assembly of formerly imported pumps for
which, once the assembly step has been taken, parts are imported; then
the making of parts for which metal is imported; then possibly even the
smelting of metal for these and other import

Hess’s earlier reference to appliance repair is the logical beginning of
such a chain of import substitution. As the national transportation
infrastructure and freight industry capacities both shrink under the
impact of Peak Oil and fiscal exhaustion, small garage, backyard and
neighborhood shops can take up the slack of the crumbling corporate
logistic chains by custom machining replacement parts that are no longer
available through regular channels, in order to keep aging appliances
working. As the number of shops engaged in such production increases,
and the variety of products produced, they can produce parts for an
increasing share of entire appliances, and then proceed to producing
original modular accessories for existing appliances, and then producing
open-source appliance designs from scratch.

Hess and David Morris, in Neighborhood Power, suggested a progression
from retail to repair to manufacturing: “repair shops begin to transform
themselves into basic manufacturing facilities….”
Retail outlets might rely on community-supported agriculture as their
main source of supply, move on to a small cannery, and then to a glass
recycling center to trade broken bottles and jars for usable ones on
arrangement with the bottling companies.

That’s exactly the process by which the Japanese bicycle industry
developed, according to Jane Jacobs (Hess and Morris — perhaps in an
uncredited allusion to Jacobs — also suggested bike retail shops adding
maintenance facilities and then producing the most vital parts, and
finally entire bicycles). Jacobs writes:

…[S]hops to repair [imported bicycles] had sprung up in the big
cities…. Imported spare parts were expensive and broken bicycles were
too valuable to cannibalize the parts. Many repair shops thus found it
worthwhile to make replacement parts themselves — not difficult if a man
specialized in one kind of part, as many repairmen did. In this way,
groups of bicycle repair shops were almost doing the work of
manufacturing entire bicycles. That step was taken by bicycle
assemblers, who bought parts, on contract, from repairmen: the repairmen
had become “light manufacturers.”

As a contemporary example, today in India, according to Don Tapscott and
Anthony Williams, villagers use fab labs “to make replacement gears for
out-of-date copying machines….”

Cohousing, Microvillages, and Other Units for Organizing Co-Production
and Pooling Costs, Risks, and Income.
Under 20th century capitalism,
the ideal household from the employer’s standpoint was a nuclear family
severed from the local community and extended kin network. But as labor
force participation continues to decline, we can expect average
household size to increase and for multiple households to aggregate into
larger communities. In The Desktop Regulatory State, I predicted that
economic trends would lead to a shift from the social model centered on
the nuclear family household as the basic unit in a larger atomized
society to one organized around larger primary social units, ranging
from extended family compounds and cohousing projects of a few families
to larger micro-villages.

…First, we will experience a period characterized by “hollowed-out
states,” in which the eroding tax base coupled with rising unemployment
means states’ obligations for public services (fire, police, schools,
streets, utilities, etc.) and the social safety net will far outstrip
their revenues. As a result, states will steadily retreat from the
social field and take an increasingly minimalist approach to public
services. Second, total work hours per capita will gradually decline and
rates of unemployment and underemployment will creep slowly upward.
Third, as a matter of necessity, the unemployed and underemployed will
shift a growing share of their needs from purchases with wages to
self-provisioning, gifting and barter in the household and informal
sectors. Fourth, as both the government and employer-based welfare
states erode, the informal sector will of necessity evolve mechanisms
for pooling income and risks and spreading costs.

This is likely to take the form, specifically, of people coalescing into
primary social units at the residential level (extended family compounds
or multi-family household income-pooling units, multi-household units at
the neighborhood level, coordinated self-provisioning in micro-economies
organized on residential blocks or cul-de-sacs, urban communes and other
cohousing projects, squats, and stand-alone intentional communities), as
a way of pooling income and reducing costs. As the state’s social safety
nets come apart, such primary social units and extended federations
between them will fill the vacuum.

At the end of the shift, the social norm would be for the individual to
be “born into a framework in which they are guaranteed a share in
possession of communal land [and/or access to the community workshops]
and are offered social safety net protections in the event of illness or
old age, in return for observance of communally defined social
obligations.” In this, they would be a return to many of
the features of early human communities (hunter-gatherer, horticultural,
etc.) founded on sense of common blood ties whether real or mythical,
bonds of reciprocity, etc. As Murray Bookchin describes their features:

complete parity or equality between individuals, age-groups and sexes;
usufruct and later reciprocity; the avoidance of coercion in dealing
with internal affairs; and finally, what Radin calls the “irreducible
minimum” — the “inalienable right” (in Radin’s words) of every
individual in the community “to food, shelter and clothing” irrespective
of the amount of work contributed by the individual to the acquisition
of the means of life.

Economically, such primary units would function as integrated village
economies of intensive horticulture and high-tech micro-manufacturing,
much like — as I mentioned above — Kropotkin described in Fields,
Factories, and Workshops

Eric Hunting echoes this vision of hollowed-out states, with people
turning to relocalized production and community sharing economies, in
Solarpunk. Here are some passages in which he describes the lifestyle
of the early and mid-Solarpunk Era:

Increasingly, we can no longer count on ‘the system’, the authorities,
our political leaders, and their institutions to do the right things in
a crisis or maintain the essential social contract all government and
the market economy represent. Upper levels of government are becoming
decrepit and dysfunctional, corrupted by corporate influence and
afflicted by an endemic cultural nihilism. Increasingly, we see certain
demographic groups, certain communities, abandoned and betrayed by
government and corporate/finance interests in times of crisis — often of
those institutions’ own making. That’s the basic story of Flint
Michigan. And it’s happening to a growing number of communities around
the globe. With increasing frequency of environmental disasters and
economic disruptions, this can only get worse….

In response we see some towns and cities assuming more local
responsibility for their critical needs. They adopt open source software
when they realize the exploitation and unreliability inherent to branded
software. They develop municipal/cooperative telecommunications and
power when corporate services turn into exploitative hegemonies. They
cultivate urban farming in response to the often racially-motivated
abandonment of poor communities by large corporate supermarket chains.
They adopt local scrips — local money — to encourage patronage of
locally-owned business and try to prevent that economic extraction by
outside interests. And most recently, they are beginning to cultivate
the local use of the new technologies of production in the hopes of
encouraging more reliance on locally-made goods rather than those of
extractive, distant, corporations. The envelope of ‘municipal utility’
is expanding in people’s minds to cover more of what our lifestyles
depend on. This is the beginning of the Global Resilience Movement,
though it still remains small in proportion to the emerging threats.
There’s resistance, of course, but the trend persists because the
‘system’, at a fundamental level, simply isn’t doing its job anymore and
people don’t just lay-down and die when that happens. They find another

And with this increasing local-reliance, be it on the household level,
the community/neighborhood level, or regional networks of communities,
will come the realization of an increasing economic and political
autonomy and a waning of the upper levels of state authority — starved
as it will soon be of tax revenue as the middle-class hollows-out and
after the huge expenses of futile Global Warming abatement projects.

Grandiose sea level abatement projects, intended to preserve the
wealthiest or most politically important cities and their historic
landmarks (and invariably planned far too late…), have generally turned
into boondoggles and broken the backs of regional or national economies.
The insurance industry has abandoned whole states or geographic regions,
triggering real estate market collapse and general economic failure.
Poorer communities are increasingly abandoned by their government to
their growing spectrum of problems. There are shortages and
infrastructure failures. Mass protests, riots, and looting. Violent
crackdowns by increasingly desperate authorities. Mass migrations inland
and northward. New settlements — with and without authorization — emerge
in unlikely places, some created by the displaced and poor, some by
militarized gangs, others by Survivalists and eco-activists, others by
followers of crazed demagogues, religious fanatics, some fortress-like
enclaves of the wealthy. Some communities turn into antagonistic armed
camps, but often illicit a violent response from what remains of
national militaries — their armories shrinking but deep. All sorts of
community ‘movements’ are ascendent in the wake of waning central/upper

…Land is being reconsolidated into regional commons and individual
land ownership is slowly disappearing in most places, replaced by
Georgist property models after real estate markets collapsed. No mass
confiscation of property was ever needed, except in places deemed
uninhabitable due to climate impacts. Once the real estate market
collapsed, there was no point to hoarding it. No money to be made when
there’s no money to be had…

…These interventionists would be highly skilled in approaches to
adaptive reuse of existing older buildings, with this dominating the
architectural aesthetic of the time. Much as obsolete urban industrial
buildings saw adaptation by a generation of artists and hipsters with
the ‘lofting’ movement of the past, we would expect a similar fate for
today’s office buildings, corporate and light industrial ‘parks’, and
retail structures…. We can imagine them transformed by clever retrofit
into eclectic self-contained communities akin to Hans Widmer’s Bolos….
We would also anticipate the growth in temporary or accidental
settlements compelled by the forced migration of populations due to
Global Warming impacts. Here a ‘nomadic’ approach to architecture would
be the convention with the immediate demand for basic shelter, sometimes
made with makeshift and recycled/upcycled elements like shipping
containers, container shelter frames, and upcycled old vehicles, that
transition over time to more permanent habitation should such ‘camps’ be
allowed or compelled to remain persistent.

William Irwin Thompson envisioned post-capitalist village economies —
“metaindustrial villages” — as recapitulating the four stages of human
economic history (paleolithic hunter-gatherer, horticultural, industrial
and cybernetic) in a higher synthesis based on post-scarcity technology.

DECENTRALIZATION of cities and the miniaturization of technology will
alter the center-periphery dialectic of traditional civilization and
make a whole new cultural level possible. What will take place in the
metaindustrial village will be that the four classical economies of
human history, hunting and gathering, agriculture, industry, and
cybernetics, will all be recapitulated within a single deme. We will
look back to where we have been in history, gather up all the old
economies, and then turn on the spiral in a new direction.

The hunting and gathering economy could focus on the gathering of wood,
wind, and sun. In a way, the work of the New Alchemy Institute is to
create a food and energy base for a small tribal band of people living
in isolated circumstances…. New Alchemy is not a civilized strategy;
it is not going to feed the huddled masses of New York and Calcutta; it
either will be co-opted and absorbed by conglomerate NASA as the ecology
of a space colony or will enable small groups to live in dispersed
settlements — or both.

The agricultural economy of the metaindustrial village would focus on
organic gardening and the replacing of fossil-fuel agribusiness with
natural cycles in the food chain. Since the shift from gardening to
field tillage with the plow originally displaced women from food
production, the return to ecologically sophisticated gardening enables
women to return to take up significant roles in the economy of the
village, and thus to overcome the sexual alienation characteristic of
industrial society.

The third economy of the community would be industrial, and this is
where I part company with many critics of contemporary culture. The
metaindustrial village is not anti-industrial and Luddite; there will be
industry and technology, but they will be brought down to scale as
workshops in converted barns. A village could produce artistically
beautiful glass bottles which could be kept as art objects or reused as
containers in place of plastics. Or the village could produce bicycles,
clothing, rotary tillers, or other well-crafted and durable instruments.
In a return to the mystery of the craft guild, particular communities
could focus on the revival of particular crafts and industries. Whatever
the industry chosen, the scale of the operation would be small, in
harmony with the ecosystem of the region, and devoted more to a local
market than an international one.

The fourth economy of the community would be postindustrial, or
cybernetic. The characteristic feature of a postindustrial economy is
the emphasis on research and development and education. Since the entire
village would be a contemplative educational community…, the adventure
of consciousness would be more basic to the way of life than patterns of
consumption. Everyone living in the community would be involved in an
experiential approach to education, from contemplative birth… to
contemplative death…. And at the various stages of life in between,
the entire community would function as a college, in which children and
adults would work together in gardening, construction, ecological
research, crafts, and classes in all fields of

In many ways, all this is a recapitulation of the pre-capitalist past,
on a higher post-capitalist technological level. William Morris and
Pyotr Kropotkin, apostles of the decentralizing potential of electrical
power, were both inspired by an idealized vision of the late medieval

The separation of the household from the locus of economic production
largely paralleled the separation of the producing classes from the
means of production.

In the medieval commune, the workshop was a home: it was the locus not
only of highly individualized technical activities, but also… of
complex personal and cultural responsibilities. With the emergence of
the factory, home and work place are separated. The factory is a place
to which the worker goes in order to expend his human powers — powers
that are steadily degraded to the degree that they are abstracted and
quantified as mere “work time” — in the service of increasingly
anonymous owners and administrators….

…The guild, which unites homes that are also workshops, imparts a
distinctly domestic character to the commune: it turns the city into a
home, into an authentic human community that graduates personal
affiliations and responsibilities to a social level.

…The factory requires the separation of the small, independent
producer from the means of production….

Compare this to the high-tech craft shops in Emilia-Romagna, which have
once again become integrated with the home: the upper floors of the
factory are living quarters.

And the reintegration of food production into urban life — cities and
towns largely self -sufficient in fruits and vegetables and small
livestock, owing to rooftop and empty lot gardening and a shift to
edible landscaping, and supported by cereal grains and other staple
field crops in an immediately surrounding belt — is very much a return
to older and in many ways more efficient models. As Bookchin noted, “the
immense development of industry over the past century has created a
remarkable opportunity for bringing land and city into a rational and
ecological synthesis. The two could be blended into an artistic unity
that would open a new vision of the human and natural

And in fact there has been a renaissance of the urban village model
around the world as an actual practice. As Amanda Abrams explains,
“urban village” refers both to communities with mixed-use design, and to
the relationships between the people living in them.

Search for “urban village” online and many of the entries that come up
will refer to an urban planning concept of residences clustered near
shops and offices. In the U.S. in particular, it’s a fairly new idea
that focuses on neighborhood design. But an urban village is
traditionally much more than a physical space. It’s a network of
relationships; a community of interrelated people. Similarly, a true
urban village isn’t just a real estate grid and the marketplace
exchanges that occur there. Among those who focus on sharing and the
commons, it’s a term that refers to a collaborative way of life — a
relatively small, place-based urban community where people cooperate to
meet one another’s many needs, be they residential, economic,
governmental, or social. In the process, they wind up transforming their
own experience of that community.

And these kinds of urban villages are on the rise around the world,
especially throughout northern Europe. Metropolises like Berlin and
Copenhagen host do-it-yourself communities like Holzmarkt and the
long-running Christiania. Israel is seeing a growth in urban kibbutzim.
In South Korea, Seoul is aiming to establish “sharing villages”
throughout the city. While ecovillages and intentional communities are
still more popular in rural areas, where agriculture plays a key role,
urban villages are seen by their proponents as a natural and obvious
antidote to the problems of climate change, economic inequality, and
social isolation….

While cohousing complexes may qualify, an urban village doesn’t have to
be a physical space that’s built from the ground up. It can simply be a
concept and an activity that’s overlaid on an existing urban community —
a much faster process than the seven years the average cohousing project
requires to come to fruition.

There is a great deal of potential in the retrofitting suggested in the
second paragraph of the above quote. Unlike James Kunstler who envisions
split-level ranch homes and shopping districts decaying in the abandoned
suburbs post-Peak Oil, I believe such areas can be modified fairly
quickly into real, mixed-use communities in the face of strong
incentives to do so. Given the availability of cheap tabletop machinery,
intensive gardening techniques, household baking, brewing, and sewing
equipment, and the like, turning a cul de sac into a productive economy
of small workshops, edible landscaping, home-based micro-enterprises and
neighborhood bazaars is entirely feasible. Likewise, it’s easy enough to
imagine a former shopping mall filled not only with small shops but
residential quarters and workshops, the parking lot covered with raised
beds and fruit trees, and the roof with solar panels, rainwater
harvesting, and more garden beds.

Solidarity Economy in Brazilian Favelas. This is one of
the most relevant examples for our purpose, because it
involves some of the most impoverished people in the Global South,
improvising housing and infrastructure and bootstrapping a subsistence
economy with decentralized technologies out of material necessity. In
this regard, they are a case study of how people in a variety of
contexts will develop commons-based economies to support themselves, not
as a lifestyle choice, but because the corporate and state support
infrastructures they depended on have collapsed.

In the face of public neglect, favela residents are expert at doing
things for themselves, many times coming together to do so

There are many examples of this in both consumption and labor: favelas
have been practicing collective consumerism since their inception (and
well before the “sharing economy” was trendy); favelas come together in
mutirão collective work sessions for infrastructure upgrades, such as
building sewerage systems or cleaning up abandoned lots; and favelados
(favela residents) have come together in work collectives, such as the
baking and skills sharing collective Mangarfo….

These grassroots collective economic practices are all examples of the
“solidarity economy” that exists in favelas and in other communities all
over Brazil and the world. Solidarity economy has many definitions but,
most broadly, is both an umbrella term and a movement that seeks to
promote alternative economic structures based on collective ownership
and horizontal management instead of private ownership and hierarchical
management. Such structures include community banks, credit unions,
family agriculture, cooperative housing, barter clubs, consumer
cooperatives, and worker cooperatives or collectives, most well-known in
Brazil in the industries of recycling and crafts. The goal is to
decentralize wealth, root wealth in communities, and financially and
politically empower stakeholders participating in these structures
toward another, more just, economy….

As Brazil’s former National Secretary of Solidarity Economy, Paul
Singer…, said in a public assembly in Porto Alegre [in 2016]:
Solidarity economy is predominantly “spread by women, young people, the
unemployed — by all of the victims of capitalism.”

If there’s a test case for the argument that cheap, ephemeral production
technologies (small-scale manufacturing with open-source tabletop CNC
tools, DIY Bio, high-yield intensive horticulture, etc.) can enable
economic bootstrapping on small amounts of capital, and enable secession
or “Exodus” from capitalism by reducing capital intensiveness of
production, it will be in such communities.

Secession of the Commoners vs. Accelerationism. From the perspective
of the individual household in the near to medium term the main question
will be how to survive now in the face of under-/unemployment. And that
means a radical shift to self-provisioning. In the medium-term, the
closest approach to abundance from the subjective standpoint of a
household will not be the availability of goods approaching “zero
marginal cost” via automated supply chains and the “Internet of Things”
(as envisioned by Jeremy Rifkin, the left-accelerationists and others).
It will be, rather, an updated version of Borsodi’s import-substitution
and Vinay Gupta’s “buying out at the bottom” (i.e. taking advantage of
the possibilities of ultra-efficient, ephemeral technology for
supporting a comfortable lifestyle by doing more with the waste
byproducts of capitalism than capitalism could do with the original
resource inputs), to engage in direct production for use outside the
wage economy.

The biggest failure of accelerationism is its assumption that
capitalism’s path of globalization is efficient and just needs to be
socialized and taken to its logical conclusion, instead of seceded from.
Automated global supply chains and the Internet of Things may well be
part of the final post-scarcity package, but only for those goods that
can genuinely be produced more efficiently for large market areas than
in Kropotkinian/Borsodian agro-industrial villages.

And perhaps more importantly, the hypothetical timelines for the
accelerationist and secessionist scenarios are mostly incompatible. The
same economic forces that drive growing underemployment and necessitate
shift to self-provisioning as a matter of survival — Peak Oil, falling
direct rate of profit, economic volatility, falling aggregate demand and
idle capacity — are likely to simultaneously drive economic
relocalization and the shortening of industrial supply and distribution

II. Municipalism: The City as Commons and Platform

If the building blocks of commons-based societies are appearing at a
time when the commons are most needed for survival, these trends are
coming together most significantly at the municipal level in particular.
Resurrected forms of the pre-modern natural resource commons, modern
commons for mutual aid and social reproduction functions, and most
recently the new information commons, are all becoming intertwined into
larger systems.

And as right-wing authoritarian governments proliferate across the West,
and even nominally leftist national governments fall victim to blackmail
by global neoliberal forces, the municipal level offers the most hope
for fundamental institutional change.

The election of Trump has not occurred in a vacuum. Across the West, we
are witnessing a wholesale breakdown of the existing political order;
the neoliberal project is broken, the center-left is vanishing, and the
old left is at a loss for what to do. In many countries, it is the far
right that is most successful in harnessing people’s desire to regain a
sense of control over their lives. Where progressives have tried to beat
the right at its own game by competing on the battleground of the
nation-state, they have fared extremely poorly, as recent elections and
referenda across Europe have shown. Even where a progressive force has
managed to win national office, as happened in Greece in 2015, the
limits of this strategy have become abundantly clear, with global
markets and transnational institutions quickly bullying the Syriza
government into compliance.

Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel start from Gramsci’s epigram “The
old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the
time of monsters,” arguing that it’s the triumph of monsters like Trump
and other authoritarian national leaders that seems to block the
transition from a capitalist to a post-capitalist society. The answer,
they say, is to bypass the national state and organize a commons-based,
P2P successor society by building counter-institutions “one city at a

So, where is the margin for action, if change from within is effectively
blocked by the structural constraints of statist politics and the
electoral arena?…

Amid this increasingly bleak political landscape, affinity-based
networks and communities using P2P dynamics and building commons have
been taking action. Small-scale innovations in many fields are paving
the way for true, sustainable resource management and grounded social
cohesion. In governance, food growing, service provision, science,
research and development, education, even finance and currency, these
community-enabled developments demonstrate how differently our lives
could be organized. Many of these place-based efforts are being
documented and replicated worldwide through the Internet, in the process
re-seeding the knowledge Commons from which they draw. This is done
through commons enabling, aka P2P (peer-to-peer, person-to-person,
people-to-people) technologies, which are gaining momentum as forces for
constructive change. They enable small group dynamics at higher levels
of complexity and enable the reclamation of power.

With this power, people can create innovations in production, open book
accounting, and the stewardship of natural, cultural or digitally
derived commons — but also in governance. Together, all of this forms
the building blocks of a truly bottom-up system.

Contrast the victory of reaction and the failure of left-wing challenges
at the national level — e.g. Trump’s election in the United States,
Brexit and Johnson in the UK, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the failure of
Syriza’s national government in Greece — with the accomplishments of the
Spanish Left at the municipal level.

In 2014, activists in the country were wrestling with a similar
conundrum to their counterparts in the US today: how to harness the
power of new social and political movements to transform institutional
politics. For pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, they decided to
start by standing in local elections; the so-called “municipalist
wager.” The bet paid off; while citizen platforms led by activists from
social movements won mayoralties in the largest cities across the
country in May of 2015, their national allies, Unidos Podemos, stalled
in third place at the general elections in December later that same

In Spain, this network of ‘rebel cities’ has been putting up some of the
most effective resistance to the conservative central government. While
the state is bailing out the banks, refusing to take in refugees and
implementing deep cuts in public services, cities like Barcelona and
Madrid are investing in the cooperative economy, declaring themselves
‘refuge cities’ and remunicipalizing public services.

The most notable example is Barcelona, as we will see below. But M15
activists have created Left governments in other Spanish cities as well,
like A Coruña and Valencia, and promoted commons-based local agendas.
Even in the supposedly conservative city of Madrid, the Ahora Madrid
movement won control of local government. Ahora Madrid
itself was elected with a peer-produced platform:

The fact that we built a totally open platform that people could trust
was one of the big draws for Ahora Madrid…. A month before the
election, we thought that there was no way we could win the elections,
it was totally impossible! No one knew about our party….

But we were really open, and our attitude was like, “ok, you take
control of it! You can control the campaign, control everything. It’s
your party, you can do whatever you want!” And that’s how we built
trust, people really trusted this…. In one or two months, we had a
very good shot at winning — and with no money. The money we had was
raised through crowdfunding, and it wasn’t all that much either. We did
it… without any of the kind of power that everybody assumes is
necessary to win elections: money, the media, etc…. Common citizens
who self-organized…and won!

The local citizen-based parties in Spain pursue agendas that involve
turning city governments into something resembling the Partner State
model discussed in previous chapters; they

are trying to transform government itself and political norms. Inspired
by Occupy-style movements working from the bottom up, local municipal
parties want to make all governance more transparent, horizontal, and
accessible to newcomers. They want to make politics less closed and
proprietary, and more of an enactment of open source principles. It’s
all about keeping it real….

To devise a party that avoids hierarchical control, centralized power
and celebrity-leaders, Ahora Madrid developed an open process that
invites anyone to join and participate. One tool is an online
proportional voting system called Dowdall — the same one used for a
European singing contest, Eurovision. The system allows citizen-voters
to give differently weighted points to people running for different
positions in the government. The party leader cannot automatically
dictate the party’s slate of candidates. This allows for a wider
diversity of party leaders. Ahora Madrid’s people in city government
include ecologists, political independents, traditional party people,
and others. Ahora Madrid’s party program was similarly built through an
open, collaborative process, said [Director of Citizen Participation
Miguel] Arana. There were working groups and then Internet voting on the
proposed agenda.

The city’s open-source approach to government includes citizen
initiatives (when online policy proposals are backed by 1% of voters,
they go to a referendum and if approved become official policy), and
participatory budgeting with control over 60 million

For that matter, people in Greece are responding to the failure of
Syriza by turning increasingly to local counter-institutions. In Athens,
informal local movements are reclaiming public spaces like parking lots
and unused municipal office buildings. For example, a former parking lot
on the edge of the Exarchia community was dug up to build Navarinou
Park, a community garden now administered by a committee of neighborhood

“What we are witnessing is an explosion of social networks born of
bottom-up initiatives,” says [architecture professor Stavros] Stavrides,
who was among the activists whose spontaneous efforts stopped the lot
being turned into a parking space in late 2009. “Navarinou heralded this
new culture, this new spirit of people taking their lives into their own
hands. They know that they can no longer expect the state to support
them and through this process, they are discovering how important it is
to share….”

Increasingly, local associations, resident committees, and solidarity
groups are forging ties, exchanging know-how, giving shape to new
concepts of co-existence, and in so doing, reshaping public

Of course, this isn’t all just a response to the disappointing
performance of the Syriza government. Despite being eclipsed in
visibility by the political activity of the Syriza party, commons-based
economic counter-institutions were a major part of the Greek
population’s way of coping with the post-2008 economic crisis, and had
close ties to the Syntagma insurgency.

Hollowed out by the corrosive effects of austerity, large tracts of
Athens’ inner city have become a landscape of decay that has allowed
others to move in. Public buildings — from abandoned municipal offices
to theatres, market places, and cafes — have been squatted and taken

An unofficial support network has evolved with self-managed health
clinics, collective kitchens, neighborhood assemblies, community groups
and language schools mushrooming. Backed by people from all walks of
life, the initiatives have taken off on a wave of solidarity following
the demise of the welfare state. At last count, there were over 400.

“There are initiatives scattered throughout the city that show it is not
paralysed by the crisis,” Stavrides says. “And they are happening when
most of us feel powerless in front of policies and decisions taken in
our name.”

The Social Cultural Centre of Vyronas, established in an abandoned
municipal building by a public occupation to prevent it being
“privatized,” serves “workers, the unemployed, pensioners, migrants, and
youth”; “gives lessons in foreign languages, history, philosophy, tai
chi, traditional dance, guitar and photography. A collective kitchen
operates twice a week alongside a library and cinema.”

These initiatives take place against the backdrop of a relatively
commons-friendly city government.

Giorgos Kaminis, Athens’ progressive mayor, has created a municipal post
that actively courts community initiatives in a bid to modernise local
administration and improve the quality of life. Amalia Zepou, a former
documentary-maker who holds the post as vice mayor for civil society and
municipality decentralisation, has created a platform for community
projects, SynAthina, where citizens exchange information, find partners,
and get in touch with city hall and potential sponsors. The aim, she
says, is to reinvigorate the democratic process.

Such “Rebel City” projects are the most promising avenue for resistance
to neoliberal capitalism and the rising neo-fascist movements, for
implementing post-capitalist alternatives, and for weathering the
post-capitalist transition. Those of us in the anarchist milieu and the
rest of the Left, who are interested in models for building the
institutions of a successor society, should devote a great deal of
attention to the role of local community as a platform for change.

Partner State, Rebel Cities, Libertarian Municipalism and Other
Theoretical Models.
If there is any hope of
government evolving into something less statelike, it lies at the
municipal level. Stacco Troncoso argues that the commons-based state is
most prevalent, and most feasible, at the city level.

I think the city level is where the commons are most embedded at the
moment. If you look at the experiences of Barcelona, at Seoul in Korea,
at Frome in the UK or at Grenoble in France, at the Co-Bologna
experiment in Italy (as well as Co-Mantova, Co-Palermo, Co-Battaglia) —
these represent a poly-centric governance model where policy-making is
actually done at the grassroots level. It empowers citizens’ groups to
make policy proposals…. Policy-making is opened up to citizen
collectives, while the city becomes an enabling mechanism to realise
these projects. Cities cooperate in new ways through a new translocal
urban level that didn’t exist before. So, for example, 40 cities
worldwide have coalesced to regulate Uber and I think it would be
worthwhile to actually start mapping these initiatives. The same with
fighting climate change and the coalitions of cities going much further
than the state level. Another level is what I call ‘neo-tribes’ — mostly
knowledge-workers travelling around the world, working from different
places, and creating this whole infrastructure of global cooperation in
physical places, like co-working and fabbing. So, give that another
10–15 years and we’ll have different types of transnational structures,
like guilds of the Middle Ages. There are a lot of forces on the ground
doing urban gardening, using fab-labs co-working, alternative
currencies, community support of agriculture… These people are there,
but I don’t think they are sufficiently mobilised for political

David Bollier, in a talk in the Netherlands, cited Graeber’s observation
that the mainstream Left has no answer to bureaucracy. He suggested the
commons as such an alternative, to state bureaucracy as well as to the
market. Instead of the bureaucratic state, we get a model of the state
as facilitator or partner, collaborating with the public rather than
issuing rules.

The Partner State can be seen as a paradigm shift, from the state
conceived as a managerial hierarchy to the state conceived as a
stigmergically organized peer-network. To quote Antonio Negri and
Michael Hardt:

We might also understand the decision-making capacity of the multitude
in analogy with the collaborative development of computer software and
the innovations of the open-source movement. Traditional, proprietary
software makes it impossible for users to see the source code that shows
how a program works…. When the source code is open so that anyone can
see it, more of its bugs are fixed, and better programs are produced:
the more eyes that see it and the more people allowed to contribute to
it, the better a program it becomes…. As we noted earlier with regard
to “swarm intelligence,” we are more intelligent together than any one
of you is alone…. One approach to understanding the democracy of the
multitude, then, is an open-source society, that is, a society whose
source code is revealed so that we all can work collaboratively to solve
its bugs and create new, better social programs.

Among the Co-Cities Protocol’s “design
principles… for transitioning from urban commons projects to the city
as a commons,” LabGov includes the “Enabling State,” which is

the design principle that expresses the role of the public authority or
the State in the governance of the commons and identifies the
characteristics of an enabling state that facilitates collective actions
for the commons. As highlighted by Sheila Foster in her first study on
the urban commons, the presence of the State acting as an enabling
platform for collective actions might represent a key factor for the
success of community projects on the urban commons.

The Enabling State or Partner State also has its counterpart at the
neighborhood level as well:

Social and Economic Pooling is the dimension that helps understand the
distinction between an urban governance scheme based on co-governance,
where different neighborhood actors (i.e. public, private, knowledge,
social, civic) share, co-manage, regenerate the urban commons, and an
urban governance scheme based on urban pools, where the aforementioned
actors coalesce to transform the neighborhoods into social and economic
enabling platforms thereby creating self-standing collective
institutions based on sustainable, social and solidarity, collaborative,
cooperative and circular economic ventures.

As we noted in a previous chapter: regardless of the abstract nature of
the state, on the concrete level it is made up of individual human
beings — many of whom are amenable to working with prefigurative social
movements, promoting them “within the belly of the beast” to the extent
of their individual abilities. As Graeber argues:

…I have been excited by the Corbyn phenomenon because I know the
people involved, and I know they’re actually serious about trying to
create a synergy between people working in the system and those working
outside. Syriza never was, really; they co-opted and destroyed
everything they touched. Podemos seems very uneven and often very
disappointing in this regard. The Corbyn and McDonnell people, by
contrast, really want to see if they can do it right. And this is
important because if anti-authoritarian movements actually are going to
win, it can only be by creating that sort of synergy in the short to
medium term — unless we’re talking about some catastrophic collapse,
which of course might happen, but is nothing we can in any way bank on.

We have to figure out a way for those who want to preserve a
prefigurative space where they can experiment with what a free society
might actually be like — which necessarily means not having any
systematic relation with political parties, funding bodies, anything
like that — to actually work with those who are trying to create more
modest and immediate changes within the system, which is beneficial to
both of them. So one piece of advice would be: think hard about how to
do this.

This is similar to the phenomenon Hillary Wainwright describes, where
grass-roots citizens coalitions operating outside conventional political
parties engage in electoral politics, but retain their quasi-official
character even when elected, and retain as well their ties to movements
outside the state.

I think the key feature of the present political situation is the
development of movements often associated with new political parties,
or, in the case of Britain for example, within and without the
traditional Labour party. These movements are not just about protest and
demonstrations, they reflect the alienation of citizens from the
political process, including parties and the state. They reflect a
process that’s gone on since 1968, which is citizens asserting
themselves as knowledgeable, productive actors. The logic of
alternatives created in the here and now and the refusal of existing
relations, based on the presumption that things could be different, is
continuing today through the environmental movement, energy
cooperatives, community gardens, alternative care systems, and so on.
What the commons captures is that notion of self-organisation and the
creation of a material force, autonomous from the existing political
sphere. And this is where the participation element comes in, based on
the notion of people as knowing citizens. Citizens are alienated from
the way the state treats them, as mere cogs; a

Rob Hopkins remarked, in the specific context of Transition Town
Monteveglio, on how exciting

it starts to look like when that bottom-up approach that is Transition
meets an engaged, proactive local authority who are also thinking in
terms of localisation and resilience. And that interface where those two
things meet is really, really important and a fascinating area that’s
starting to emerge. How can a council best support the Transition
process rather than drive it?

Ross Beveridge and Philippe Koch argue that the municipal level of
governance requires us either to redefine the features traditionally
attributed to the state (so that significantly less “sovereign” or
“Westphalian” entities qualify), or to blur the distinction between
state and non-state at the local level. On the one hand, the various
functions and components conventionally bundled together in the
conception of state power are to a large extent “disaggregated” at the
municipal level. On the other, the entities formally subsumed under the
“state” at the local level take on an “everyday” character that overlaps
both in functions and personnel with non-state social and economic

…[A] transformed local state entails opportunities for political actions
that are not at hand in a context where the state preserves its
sovereignty, bureaucratic domination and legitimacy either on the
national or local level. Thus it should not come as a surprise that many
anti-austerity struggles perceive formal politics, representative
channels of interest articulation and implementation, as wanting and
unproductive. Some activists aim to transform parts, nodes or processes
within the local state for their own advantage. A slowly disaggregating
state does not imply that political authority or the legitimacy of
collective forms of governance dissolves at all scales. But it does mean
that the (local) state in its institutional form is not the only,
possibly not even the most important, addressee of political demands….
The vision of the local state apparent is one more embedded in urban
society and more nurtured by the urban everyday, not the sole arbitrator
or source of political authority. This can be read as an attempt to make
the local state more hybrid in the sense of encouraging the enmeshing of
local state organisations and non-state organisations grounded in urban

In a context where the division between state and autonomous forms of
collective actions is blurred, the local state as a plane of politics
becomes problematised. The idea of a new, radical municipalism can be
perceived in this manner…. The local state as an organisational form
of collective action remains important but only as fair [sic] as
institutional logics and practices are adapted to claims for
self-government and everyday needs.

…The local state becomes a crucial political field of contestation
against austerity programs but, at the same time, turns into the site
where urban society experiments with forms of self-government and
activism embedded in the everyday experiences of

Davina Cooper, similarly, conceptually breaks down the local state into
a plural or even contradictory system, and renders many of its
components “quotidian”:

…Alongside those who see the only “good” states as workers’ states, or
states in the process of “withering away,” are those who find
transformative potential even in the depths of liberal capitalist states
as they uncover contradictions, inconsistencies, and plurality in state
systems, logics, actors and rationalities…. Progressive actions may
also be unofficial, or initiated by subordinate state actors drawing on
residual or unintended resources….

…Given such variety, given also the state’s rich conceptual history,
and apparent capacity for new conceptual futures, is it possible to
reimagine the state in ways that displace the currently “vertical”
tropes of “the state as an institution somehow ‘above’ civil society,
community, and family”?…. Adopting a more pluralist, quotidian account
of the state, by contrast, offers a different political strategy in
which the state is embedded and enmeshed with everyday life, while also
cut down to size; where the nation-state, with its histories of
exclusions, dominations, exploitative extractions and claims to prestige
and grandeur, is just one kind of state among others in a list that
could also include guerrilla, micro, city, regional, and global

And Bertie Russell proposes, in place of “a political strategy that
identifies the institution as a ‘thing’ to be captured,” instead framing
the local “governing infrastructure” as “a series of processes and
social relationships to be ‘hacked’ and opened

In fact, it is arguably quite possible to sever the Partner State
altogether from even residual forms of sovereign police power over all
the individuals in a contiguous geographical area. It is possible to
have an entire polycentric ecosystem of commons-based institutions with
self-selected memberships, or made up of users of a particular common
resource, with substantially overlapping memberships, and large
minorities or even majorities of those in the same area being members of
most of them. In that case adjudication or negotiation of the
relationships between them will cause a body of “common law” to emerge
for the system as a whole, with a substantial degree of de facto
coordination over a common geographical area.

Neighborhoods and communities do not have to be subject to a single
majority rule, as such, in order to have democratic governance.
Neighborhood coordinating bodies as such, in a post-state society, may
not include every single resident as a participant, and therefore not
exercise binding authority. Their governance processes may affect only a
majority, or even a plurality, of residents who choose to participate in
the governance bodies and abide by their decisions. But the
infrastructures and resources serving a majority of those who live in a
neighborhood or community may well be cooperatives or commons subject to
communal governance. It is likely that the various infrastructures
serving a neighborhood or community will constitute an overlapping
series of bodies within that geographical area. And those bodies —
governed as cooperatives, or on Ostrom’s common pool resource model —
will coexist as parts of a polycentric framework, with a body of common
law arising to adjudicate relations between them. This body of common
law will be binding internally on the members of the associations which
agree to them — thus effectively coordinating, directly or indirectly,
the entire population of the area in one way or another.

Matthew Thompson uses the label “autonomist” for municipalist projects
that are driven primarily by social movements and counter-institutions
rather than engagement with local government. Autonomist municipalism
aims “for a stateless polis of confederated cooperatives, communes and
assemblies through collective self-organising, motivated by anti-statist
struggles for bio-regional and cultural
self-determination…” As we will see in more detail
later, Thompson sees Cooperation Jackson as a project that straddles the
line between the autonomist approach and the more conventional political
approach of Cleveland and Preston, but has steadily gravitated to the
autonomist side of the line (especially since the death of Mayor Chokwe

David Harvey sees “Rebel Cities” as the primary base for struggle
against capitalism, as well as the organizational core of the successor
society. A model of radicalism centered on the city as a geographical
base can be class -oriented, but will have to abandon the Old Left’s
workerist emphasis and focus on workplace-based struggles.

When a city-wide struggle does acquire an iconic revolutionary status,
as in the case of the Paris Commune of 1871, it is claimed (first by
Marx, and even more emphatically by Lenin) as a “proletarian uprising”
rather than as a much more complicated revolutionary movement — animated
as much by the desire to reclaim the city itself from its bourgeois
appropriation as by the desired liberation of workers from the travails
of class oppression in the workplace. I take it as symbolic that the
first two acts of the Paris Commune were to abolish night-work in the
bakeries (a labor question) and to impose a moratorium on rents (an
urban question). Traditional left groups can therefore on occasion take
up urban-based struggles, and when they do they can often be successful
even as they seek to interpret their struggle from within their
traditional workerist perspective.

I see no reason why it should not be construed as both a class struggle
and a struggle for citizenship rights in the place where working people
lived. To begin with, the dynamics of class exploitation are not
confined to the workplace. Whole economies of dispossession and of
predatory practices… with respect to housing markets, are a case in
point. These secondary forms of exploitation are primarily organized by
merchants, landlords, and the financiers; and their effects are
primarily felt in the living space, not in the factory. These forms of
exploitation are and always have been vital to the overall dynamics of
capital accumulation and the perpetuation of class power. Wage
concessions to workers can, for example, be stolen back and recuperated
for the capitalist class as a whole by merchant capitalists and
landlords and, in contemporary conditions, even more viciously by the
credit-mongers, the bankers, and the financiers. Practices of
accumulation by dispossession, rental appropriations, by money- and
profit-gouging, lie at the heart of many of the discontents that attach
to the qualities of daily life for the mass of the population. Urban
social movements typically mobilize around such questions, and they
derive from the way in which the perpetuation of class power is
organized around living as well as around working. Urban social
movements therefore always have a class content even when they are
primarily articulated in terms of rights, citizenship, and the travails
of social reproduction

The fact that these discontents relate to the commodity and monetary
rather than the production circuit of capital matters not one wit [sic]:
indeed, it is a big theoretical advantage to reconceptualize matters
thus, because it focuses attention on those aspects of capital
circulation that so frequently play the nemesis to attempts at worker
control in production. Since it is capital circulation as a whole that
matters (rather than merely what happens in the productive circuit) ,
what does it matter to the capitalist class as a whole whether value is
extracted from the commodity and money circuits rather than from the
productive circuit directly? The gap between where surplus value is
produced and where it is realized is as crucial theoretically as it is
practically. Value created in production may be recaptured for the
capitalist class from the workers by landlords charging high rents on

Traditional Marxist analysis plays up the vanguard role of the
industrial proletariat at the expense of community institutions.

Most struggles waged by factory-based workers turn out, on inspection,
to have had a much broader base. Margaret Kahn complains, for example,
how left historians of labor laud the Turin Factory Councils of the
early twentieth century while totally ignoring the “Houses of the
People” in the community where much of the politics was shaped, and from
which strong currents of logistical support flowed. E. P. Thompson
depicts how the making of the English working class depended as much
upon what happened in chapels and in neighborhoods as in the workplace.
The local city trades councils have played a much-underestimated role in
British political organization, and often anchored the militant base of
a nascent Labour Party and other left organizations in particular towns
and cities in ways that the national union movement often ignored. How
successful would the Flint sit-down strike of 1937 have been in the
United States had it not been for the masses of the unemployed and the
neighborhood organizations outside the gates that unfailingly delivered
their support, moral and material?

Organizing the neighborhoods has been just as important in prosecuting
labor struggles, as has organizing the workplace. One of the strengths
of the factory occupations in Argentina that followed on the collapse of
2001 is that the cooperatively managed factories also turned themselves
into neighborhood cultural and educational centers. They built bridges
between the community and the workplace. When past owners try to evict
the workers or seize back the machinery, the whole populace typically
turns out in solidarity with the workers to prevent such action. When
UNITE HERE sought to mobilize rank-and-file hotel workers around LAX
airport in Los Angeles, they relied heavily “on extensive outreach to
political, religious and other community allies, building a coalition”
that could counter the employers’ repressive strategies. But there is,
in this, also a cautionary tale: in the British miners’ strikes of the
1970s and 1980s, the miners who lived in diffuse urbanized areas such as
Nottingham were the first to cave in, while those in Northumbria, where
workplace and living-place politics converged, maintained their
solidarity to the end. The problem posed by circumstances of this sort
will be taken up later.

To the degree that conventional workplaces are disappearing in many
parts of the so-called advanced capitalist world (though not, of course,
in China or Bangladesh), organizing around not only work but also around
conditions in the living space, while building bridges between the two,
becomes even more crucial. But it has often been so in the past.
Worker-controlled consumer cooperatives offered critical support during
the Seattle general strike of 1919, and when the strike collapsed
militancy shifted very markedly towards the development of an elaborate
and interwoven system of mainly worker-controlled consumer cooperatives.

As the lens is widened on the social milieu in which struggle is
occurring, the sense of who the proletariat might be and what their
aspirations and organizational strategies might be is transformed. The
gender composition of oppositional politics looks very different when
relations outside of the conventional factory (in both workplaces and
living spaces) are brought firmly into the picture. The social dynamics
of the workplace are not the same as those in the living space. On the
latter terrain, distinctions based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion,
and culture are frequently more deeply etched into the social fabric,
while issues of social reproduction play a more prominent, even dominant
role in the shaping of political subjectivities and

Harvey points to Fletcher and Gapasin’s recommendation, in Solidarity
, that the US labor movement should organize cities as well as
workplaces, and empower cross-sector urban councils. Unions must build
alliances with metropolitan social blocs. Among the
examples of city-based radicalization Harvey notes are “Red Bologna” in
the 1970s, and the Water Wars of Cochabamba, Bolivia, in
2000. The latter forced out Bechtel and Suez corporations. Uprisings in
El Alto, a city overlooking La Paz, subsequently forced out two
neoliberal presidents in 2003 and 2005, and paved the way for the Evo
Morales administration. Another uprising and occupation in Cochabamba,
which forced out the conservative city administration, thwarted a
right-wing attempt to oust Morales in 2007. The
political environment out of which these uprisings occurred in El Alto
included a number of overlapping radical traditions: the neighborhood
assemblies and their federal organization for the city as a whole;
associations of vendors, transport workers and precarious/informal
workers of all sorts; more conventional trade unions (the most important
of which was the teachers’ union which, like that in Oaxaca, was quite

He goes on to speculate on how the same Rebel City model of struggle
might be duplicated elsewhere.

Imagine in New York City, for example, the revival of the now largely
somnolent community boards as neighborhood assemblies with
budget-allocation powers, along with a merged Right to the City Alliance
and Excluded Workers Congress agitating for greater equality in incomes
and access to health care and housing provision, all coupled with a
revitalized local Labor Council to try to rebuild the city and the sense
of citizenship and social and environmental justice out of the wreckage
being wrought by neoliberal corporatist urbanization….

Policies for a postcapitalist transition that can be adopted at the
local level include a local basic income, replacing the “privatization”
of public assets with commons governance, promoting collaborative forms
of organization and production, and in particular promoting the data
commons. In the case of Barcelona, Paul Mason has an extensive laundry

Suppose Barcelona did these things:

  • Brand itself as a city of commons and collaborative production

  • End privatisation

  • Massively reduce the cost of basic services like housing, transport,
    education, and health so that being in the precariat became more

  • Build an agent-based, complex model of the economy, with real inputs,
    so that participatory democracy could model complex decisions

  • Prefer and promote collaborative organisations over both the
    centralised state and the market solutions

  • Institute a citizens basic income, conditional on some participation
    on non-profit activities

  • Decree that the networked data of the population as it uses public
    services is non-ownable. Would capitalism collapse?

No. The desperate, frantic “survival capitalists” would go away — the
rip-off consultancies; the low-wage businesses; the rent-extractors.

But you would attract the most innovative capitalists on earth, and you
would make the city vastly more livable for the million-plus people who
call it home.

David Bollier argues that cities are “[o]ne of the most promising places
to start building a new polity.”

In Barcelona, Bologna, Seoul, and many other cities, citizen movements
based on the ideas of “the city as a commons” and of “sharing cities”
are taking root. Both approaches assert the shared interests of ordinary
residents over those of the usual overlords of city government — real
estate developers, economic elites, “starchitects,” and urban planners.
They recognize the city and its public spaces, communities and
opportunities as products of commoning. A commons framing is
deliberately invoked to make new moral and political claims on common
resources in urban settings — and so inaugurate a self-feeding spiral of
social practice and a new discourse. Citizens acting as commoners can
insist on greater citizen participation not just in policymaking but in
directly developing innovative projects and solutions. Network platforms
can foster all of these goals.

In Bologna, for example, the city government is undertaking a landmark
reconceptualization of how government might work in cooperation with
citizens. Ordinary people acting as commoners are invited to enter into
a “co-design process” with the city to manage public spaces, urban green
zones, abandoned buildings and other urban resources. The formal legal
authority for this innovation, the Bologna Regulation for the Care and
Regeneration of Urban Commons, is now being emulated by other Italian

City governments could augment this general approach by building new
tech infrastructures that enable greater citizen engagement. For
example, instead of ceding the software infrastructure for taxi service
or apartment rentals to Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and other well-financed “gig
economy” corporations, city governments could require the use of shared
open platforms for such market activity. This could enable multiple
players to compete while improving regulatory oversight of basic labor
and consumer protections, and privacy protection for personal data….

Network platforms are an especially attractive way to actualize the idea
of “the city as commons” because they can enact all sorts of open source
principles: low barriers to participation, transparency of process,
bottom-up innovation, social pressure for fair dealing and resistance to
concentrated power and insider deals.

One powerful way to advance commoning in cities is through the skillful
use of open data. The ubiquity of computing devices in modern life is
generating vast floods of data that, if managed cooperatively, could
improve city life in many creative ways. Open data systems could be used
to host participatory crowdsourcing, interactive collaborations among
citizens and government, and improvements in municipal services (street
repairs, trash removal, transportation).

City governments (or state or federal governments, for that matter)
could leverage bottom-up, interactive collaborations… by developing
their own open APIs [application programming interfaces] on electronic
networks — similar to those used by the iPhone and other platforms. This
would enable governments to collect real-time data and make more
dynamic, responsive choices “in cooperation” with its citizens. City
governments could also perform automatic oversight of regulated entities
without the complexities of conventional regulation. Sensors for water
or air quality, for example, could provide real-time data portraits of
an airshed or watershed. By using tamper-proof data-flows from remote
devices, some of the expense of in-person inspections could be avoided
and the quality of enforcement improved.

The huge potential of open data networks raises important questions
about governance structures, however. How should crowdsourced
information be managed and governed — by proprietary companies? City
governments? Citizens as commoners? As the controversial growth of Uber
and Airbnb has shown, there are great risks in such power being held by
a few large tech companies answerable primarily to investors. Yet very
few city governments have shown leadership in using networked systems to
advance public designs for public purposes. There is a need to set forth
some commons-based governance alternatives because they are the most
likely to align civic needs and realities with the ultimate policies and

Fortunately, there are a number of pacesetter projects experimenting
along these lines. In addition to the Bologna Regulation…, the
European Cultural Foundation is actively exploring the role that
artistic and cultural commons can play in improving cities. The
Ubiquitous Commons project is developing a prototype legal/technological
toolkit to empower people to control the personal data they generate
from countless devices, especially in urban contexts. The Open Referral
Initiatives is developing a common technical language so that
information systems can “speak” to each other and share community
resource directory data. The beauty of these and other initiatives is
that they invite broad participation and address immediate, practical
needs while contributing to a very different paradigm of governance —
one that fosters commons and commoning.

For both the municipality as a platform and transnational networks of
municipal platforms, the primary function of the one-time state as
governance institution is to legally define and enforce rights to the
common. Along with this goes the infrastructural function of actively
supporting and encouraging a wide variety of commons-based institutions,
and promoting their coalescence into a coherent whole. The primary
actors in building the new system are “ordinary people acting as
householders, makers, hackers, permaculturists, citizen-scientists,
cooperativists, community foresters, subsistence collectives, social
mutualists, and commoners”; the municipal and federal “governments” are
merely supportive.

Through network-based cooperation and localized grassroots projects,
millions of people around the world are managing all sorts of bottom-up,
self-provisioning systems. There are also many new types of
citizen-actors and mobilizations seeking system change, ranging from
cultural surges such as Occupy, the Arab Spring and the Las Indignadas
to more durable long-term movements focused on cooperatives, degrowth,
the solidarity economy, Transition Towns, relocalized economies, peer
production, and the commons. These movements are developing new visions
of “development” and “progress,” as seen in the buen vivir ethic in
Latin America, for example, or in “go local”movements in the US and
Europe, and the FabLabs and makerspaces. The new models also include
alternative currencies, co-operative finance and crowd equity
investments to reclaim local control, transition and indigenous peoples’
initiatives to develop sustainable post-growth economies, the movement
to reclaim the city as a commons, and movements to integrate social
justice and inclusive ethical commitments into economic life. These
movements are not only pioneering new types of collective action and
provisioning, but also new legal and organizational forms. The idea of
“generative ownership” as a collective enterprise is being explored by
leaders of co-operative finance, community land trusts, relocalized food
systems and commons-based peer production. Each is attempting to
demonstrate the feasibility of various commons-based ownership
structures and self-governance – and then to expand the use of such
models to show that there are attractive alternatives that can mature
into a new economic ecosystem.

The general approach here is to change the old by building the new. The
demonstration of feasible alternatives (renewable energy, cooperativism,
relocalization, etc.) is a way to shift political momentum, constitute
new constituencies for system change, and assert a new moral center of
gravity. To work, however, the alternatives incubated outside the
existing system must achieve a sufficient coherence, intelligibility,
scale, and functionality.

The commons can act as a shared meta-language among these highly diverse
groups because the commons expresses many of the core values and
priorities of many “system-change” movements. Like DNA, which is
under-specified so that it can adapt to local circumstances, the commons
discourse is general enough to accommodate myriad manifestations of
basic values and principles. More than an intellectual framework, the
commons helps make culturally legible the many social practices
(“commoning”) that are often taken to be too small and inconsequential
to matter – but which, taken together, constitute a different type of
economy. In this fashion, the commons discourse itself has an
integrative and catalytic potential to build a new type of networked

Professor Christian Iaione (who heads the Laboratory for the Governance
of Commons, or LabGov, at LUISS University) has been active in promoting
the Partner State model at the municipal level. He was a primary figure
in drafting Bologna’s Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban
Commons, adopted in 2014, which came out of LabGov’s “City as a Commons”
project. “This regulation allows citizen coalitions to propose
improvements to their neighborhoods, and the city to contract with
citizens for key assistance. In other words, the municipality functions
as an enabler giving citizens individual and collective autonomy.”

The Bologna regulation is a 30-page regulatory framework outlining how
local authorities, citizens and the community at large can manage public
and private spaces and assets together…. As such, it’s a sort of
handbook for civic and public collaboration, and also a new vision for
government. It reflects the strong belief that we need a cultural shift
in terms of how we think about government, moving away from the
Leviathan State or Welfare State toward collaborative or polycentric

Since then dozens of Italian cities have adopted similar regulations,
including the CO-Mantova project in Mantua — which Iaione was also
involved in developing – “set up for citizen-based social innovation
using a multi-stakeholder approach….”

CO-Mantova is a prototype of a process to run the city as a
collaborative commons, i.e. a “co-city.” A co-city should be based on
collaborative governance of the commons whereby urban, environmental,
cultural, knowledge and digital commons are co-managed by the five
actors of the collaborative/polycentric governance — social innovators
(i.e. active citizens, makers, digital innovators, urban regenerators,
rurban innovators, etc.), public authorities, businesses, civil society
organizations, knowledge institutions (i.e. schools, universities,
cultural academies, etc.) — through an institutionalized
public-private-citizen partnership. This partnership will give birth to
a local peer-to-peer physical, digital and institutional platform with
three main aims: living together (collaborative services), growing
together (co-ventures), making together (co-production).

The project is supported by the local Chamber of Commerce, the City, the
Province, local NGOs, young entrepreneurs, SMEs [small and medium-sized
enterprises], and knowledge institutions, such as the Mantua University
Foundation, and some very forward-looking local schools.

The first step was “seeding social innovation” through a collaborative
call for “Culture as a Commons” to bring forth social innovators in
Mantua. The second step was the co-design laboratory “Enterprises for
the Commons,” an ideas camp where the seven projects from the call were
cultivated and synergies created between projects and with the city. The
third phase was the Governance camp, a collaborative governance
prototyping stage which led to the drafting of the Collaborative
Governance Pact…, the Collaboration Toolkit and the Sustainability
Plan, which was presented to the public during the Festival of
Cooperation on November 27th last year.

The next step is the fourth and final phase: the governance testing and
modeling through the launch of a public consultation in the city on the
text of the Pact and a roadshow generating interest in CO-Mantova among
possible signatories belonging to the five categories of collaborative
governance actors. We are also [sic] may have CO-Mantova opening up a
Commons School.

Applying the Partner State concept at the local level, we get something
resembling, in some ways, Murray Bookchin’s Libertarian Municipalism.
But there are also major differences.

Bookchin proposes a fairly uniform model of “municipalized economies,”
in which “land and enterprises [are] placed increasingly in the custody
of the community more precisely, the custody of citizens in free
assemblies and their deputies in confederal councils.”

seeks to integrate the means of production into the existential life of
the municipality such that every productive enterprise falls under the
purview of the local assembly, which decides how it will function to
meet the interests of the community as a whole.

Bookchin’s model is, in my opinion, far too monolithic — a monoculture
of municipal enterprises, controlled by popular assemblies with
monopolies on power in their respective neighborhoods, rather than a
diverse ecosystem of commons-based projects. In contrast to the
emergent, stigmergic evolutionary models celebrated by most advocates of
commons-based institutions, Bookchin argues for “One Big Movement” to
promote a uniform model of municipal ownership and make sure all its
local iterations are on the same page.

In fact Bookchin comes across as actively hostile to stigmergic,
permissionless, or polycentric governance — the variety of what he
patronizingly dismisses as “communitarian” counter-institutions like
“so-called alternative economic and living situations such as food
cooperatives, health centers, schools, printing workshops, community
centers, neighborhood farms, ‘squats,’ unconventional lifestyles, and
the like.” In their place he fetishizes politics and majoritarianism as
such even when agreement and permission are unnecessary, using “popular
power center” and “collective power” as god terms, and envisions local
economic institutions uniformly subject to popular assemblies which
democratically work out a common political vision governing everything
subordinate to them.

In this regard, despite all his criticism of the Old Left for its
emphasis on centralization and hierarchy, Bookchin himself is very much
in the tradition of the Old Left insofar as he lionizes organizational
mass and coordination, and envisions a future society organized around a
schematically imposed template rather than an organic mixture of diverse
institutions. For Bookchin, the city, rather than being an emergent
ecosystem made up of many different types of horizontally linked
institutions, is simply a set of institutions all owned and managed by
the popular assemblies. By requiring deliberation and majority votes
even when agreement on common policy is unnecessary, his model
effectively destroys the very basis of networked institutions’ superior
agility over the dinosaur hierarchies they’re replacing.

Bookchin strawmans anarchism as somehow ignoring the middle realm
between “a workaday world of everyday life that is properly social”
including the home and workplace, and all the individual
counter-institutions like the cooperatives and such that he lists above,
on the one hand, and the state on the other. At the same time, he
accuses anarchists of conflating the political realm — which amounts to
what most people would call “governance” and involves the coordination
of social life — with the state. But he himself conflates the middle
realm of civil society, and the governance function, with the particular
organizational form of the municipal assembly, and pretends that the
only choice is between his Rosetta Stone model of popular assemblies and
the atomism he attributes to the anarchists. Municipal
assemblies are the one, true, only possible form that coordination and
governance can take; either they do it, or it doesn’t get done. “Either
municipalized enterprises controlled by citizens’ assemblies will try to
take over the economy, or capitalism will prevail in this sphere of life
with a forcefulness that no mere rhetoric can diminish.”

Contrast Bookchin’s monoculture of “municipalized enterprises controlled
by popular assemblies” with a polycentric governance model characterized
a wide variety of overlapping commons-based institutions, cooperative
enterprises, community-owned enterprises and so forth, with partially
interlocking memberships and a loose “common law” of governance rules
worked out horizontally between them.

A good example of this can be found in the fictional northern New
England society of the 22nd century, which has emerged from the 20th
century “Time of Troubles,” in Roy Morrison’s Eco Civilization 2140.
Some, but nowhere near all, local economic functions in Warner, N.H. are
carried out by community stakeholder cooperatives; some are
socially owned rather than being municipal government property
(community-based), while others are actually municipal property
(town-based). The people of Warner meet as owners of Warner Community
Enterprises to make business decisions for the cooperatives on the same
week the annual Town Meeting is held. The dividing line between
community-based and town-based is really not very sharp; some
community-based cooperatives are fairly closely intertwined with town
governance, while some town-based cooperatives have charters that grant
them a high degree of autonomy in their operations.

And the community-based and town-based cooperatives coexist with a wide
variety of other local consumer or worker cooperatives. In some cases,
the municipal cooperatives or socially- owned stakeholder cooperatives
have partial ownership stakes in private cooperatives.

Beyond institutions for pooling costs and risks and providing common
access to productive resources on the retail level — like the
multi-family cohousing arrangements, micro-villages and sharing
institutions we looked at in the previous section — cities as a whole
can provide commons infrastructures and platforms at the municipal level
to support the variety of smaller projects within their bounds.

And this does not by any means have to be done under the auspices of
official municipal government — even one domesticated as a Partner
State. Urban-based resistance movements have a long history of providing
alternative infrastructures for social support. Consider, for example,
the school lunch programs, daycare centers and community patrols
organized by the Black Panthers Party. Or — as David Harvey notes — the
construction by Hamas and Hezbollah “of alternative urban governance
structures, incorporating everything from garbage removal to social
support payments and neighborhood administrations.”

Commons-based institutions — platform cooperatives for sharing spare
capacity of assets like cars and housing, community gardens, Fab Labs,
community land trusts, information commons, and community currencies —
can integrate horizontally to form an interlocking, mutually supporting
post-capitalist ecosystem for the city as a whole.

Bollier envisions commons-based urban economies with components like

  • Creative Commons Licensing, which enables people to share and freely
    use creative works

  • FabLabs and Makerspaces, which are new social forms for creating
    valuable stuff through a commons-based collaboration

  • Platform Cooperatives, which create shared platforms “as an antidote
    to the so-called death stars” of the sharing economy

  • Alternative Currencies as a way to retain some of the value created
    regionally as opposed to having it siphoned away

  • Non-digital commons projects, including land trusts, urban
    agriculture and community gardens, and participatory budgeting
    projects which empower citizens to work with city leaders to create
    budget priorities.

[October 7, 2020]

Chapter Ten: Municipalism: Local Case Studies

I. North America

Cleveland’s Evergreen Initiative. The Evergreen
Cooperative Initiative, according to Guy Alperovitz, is
heavily influenced by the example of Mondragon,

the world’s most successful large-scale cooperative effort (now
employing 100,000 workers in an integrated network of more than 120
high-tech, industrial, service, construction, financial and other
largely cooperatively owned businesses).

It was the first in a series of municipalist movements, later including
the Preston Model in the UK among others, based on the “community wealth
building” model promoted by Alperovitz and the Democracy Collaborative.
As described by Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill:

Community wealth-building is a local economic development strategy
focused on building collaborative, inclusive, sustainable and
democratically controlled local economies. Instead of traditional
economic development through locational tax incentives and
public-private partnerships, which wastes billions to subsidise the
extraction of profit by footloose corporations with no loyalty to our
local communities, community wealth-building supports democratic
collective ownership of the economy through a range of models. These
include worker cooperatives, community land trusts, community
development financial institutions, so-called ‘anchor’ procurement
strategies, municipal and local public enterprise, and – as it is hoped
will increasingly become the case – public and community banking.
Community wealth-building is economic system change, but starting at the
local level.

The project had its origins in a study trip to Mondragon sponsored by
the Cleveland Foundation, and is described by Andrew
MacLeod as “the first example of a major city trying to reproduce
Mondragon.” Member enterprises are expected to plow ten
percent of pre-tax profits back into the development fund to finance
investment in new cooperatives.

The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which opened in late 2009, was the
first of some twenty initially projected cooperatives (most of which, as
it turned out, didn’t materialize). The second, Ohio Cooperative Solar,
installs solar power equipment on the roofs of local government and
non-profit buildings). The laundry intended to market its services
primarily to Cleveland-area hospitals and other healthcare institutions.
A third and fourth enterprise, a cooperative greenhouse and the
Neighborhood Voice newspaper were (as of early 2010) scheduled to open
in the near future. The greenhouse was projected to produce “more than 3
million heads of fresh lettuce and nearly a million pounds of (highly
profitable) basil and other herbs a year, and will almost certainly
become the largest urban food-producing greenhouse in the
country.” The greenhouse did, in fact, open in early

Evergreen is backed by “stakeholders in the local economy, local
government and universities.” In addition to marketing to the local
community, the new enterprises are geared to “serving local ‘anchor
institutions’ — the large hospitals and universities — that will provide
a guaranteed market for a portion of their services.” The Evergreen
initiative gets financing from the Cleveland Foundation and “other local
foundations, banks, and the municipal government.” As of early 2010, the
Evergreen Cooperative Development Fund was capitalized at $5 million and
is expected to raise $10–12 million more.

Besides the Cleveland Foundation, other important stakeholders are the
Cleveland Roundtable and the Democracy Collaborative. The Roundtable is
a project of Community-Wealth.org; Community-Wealth, in turn, is a
project of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland,
College Park. All three organizations are cooperating intensively to
promote the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative.

Apparently, the planned rollout of twenty enterprises was too ambitious;
the initiative suffered some setbacks at the outset, trying to expand
too quickly into too many areas at once before its core laundry business
was operating at full capacity. It regrouped under a new CEO in 2014,
and in mid-2016 a business writer described it as “emerging from its
startup phase.” It still consisted of the original three core
enterprises, the laundry, solar installation enterprise, and greenhouse,
employing about 120 people with revenues of $6 million.

Evergreen Business Services is an incubator organization within the
Evergreen umbrella that provides advice and support (including business
plan reviews, feasibility studies, shared services consulting and
business consulting) for new cooperative enterprises built on the model
of the original three Evergreen enterprises.

Alperovitz described it as “one of the largest and most promising
experiments in cooperative economics ever attempted in the United
States, with an unprecedented number of local stakeholders at the

On the negative side, some observers feel the central role of
conventionally structured legacy institutions as anchors or hubs has
influenced the organizational style of the Evergreen cooperatives for
the worse. Matthew Thompson describes the Cleveland model, much like
Preston, as a “technocratic, think tank project.”

Although crucial local government support was eventually secured, the
scheme was created by the US-based Democracy Collaborative and funded
primarily by the Cleveland Foundation, one of the largest American
philanthropic ‘community foundations’, endowed with $1.8 billion. These
technocratic and philanthropic origins place it outside local democratic
control and arguably more in the realm of international

Laurie Charles and her friends in the Bay Area cooperative movement
compared the Evergreen “community anchor” model unfavorably to what they
called the Bay Area’s “sourdough” model of finance:

Financialisation increases alienation, in a Marxist sense. A
self-financed cooperative, or a cooperative seeded and financially
linked to local communities and other cooperatives rather than to banks
and financial markets, is less burdened by the drive for primitive
accumulation and growth-to-survive, and less likely to have its purpose
twisted by a creeping Toyotist model of production in which its labour
is dictated to it by a customer who has only signed a contract with a
WSDE [worker self-directed enterprise] to make it harder for its
workforce to unionise….

The Arizmendi model of finance is lauded both by radicals within NoBAWC
[Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives] member workplaces and by
supporters of the tax-funded Evergreen model, because it funded itself
without the need for a bank…. Innosanto, my informant from the radical
Design Action Collective in Oakland…, was a worker-owner at Inkworks,
a progressive printing cooperative, before founding Design Action. He
explained to me that as design technology and the demands of the
industry changed, the workflow of graphic design became different to
that of printing, so the cooperative split voluntarily because stopping
the workflow of heavy printing for graphic design projects would have
been inefficient. Innosanto and his co-founder initially wanted to
finance Design Action with seed funding from Inkworks, inspired by the
Arizmendi model, but due to the “inertia of an older co-op” the plan was
dropped, which he told me was “one of my disappointments about it.”
Fortunately the set-up costs for the enterprise were low, which meant
that it was secure from being trapped by a rentier — but being seeded
from another cooperative rather than private finance would have made its
founding faster and more efficient, and less capital would have been
extracted from it through debt….

A pleasant metaphor frequently used by Tim to promote how Arizmendi
grows new cooperatives and how it helps the individual to grow is that
of a sourdough culture, a metaphor with several layers. The first is
literal: when a new Arizmendi bakery is opened, one of the mature
bakeries provides a part of their original sourdough culture to the new
one, which then “takes on a unique flavour at its new location.” This is
analogous to the economic model, in which not only does the finance come
from other bakeries, so too does the experience, with personnel for the
new bakery being taken on to train in an existing Arizmendi with
experienced worker-owners to learn both the trade and how to practice
democracy on a daily basis. This intersects with the third layer; that a
person joining an existing cooperative becomes, like a daily sourdough
starter of flour and water, a part of the culture (what a fortunate
symbol for an anthropologist to stumble upon!)….

Dave laughed when I asked his view on the sourdough metaphor…, but
later confirmed much of its relevance when I asked him about his view of
the Evergreen cooperatives. Aside from his concern that the board of
directors is populated by CEOs from the anchor institutions and the
workers’ control is less than that of the clients, he pointed out that
it costs the Cleveland taxpayer over a million dollars per job created
by the Evergreens.

“If we had a fraction of that money we’d be able to do a lot more with
it…the culture in the Bay Area is different than it is in the Mid
West. We have the greatest concentration of worker cooperatives in the
country, and the lowest number of professional consultants. In the Mid
West you have very few worker cooperatives but they have a huge number
of consultants, and centres, and think tanks, and to me it’s a little
bit strange because you’ve got all this infrastructure and nothing to
show for it, while here you have a lot of co-ops and we’re developing
the infrastructure after the coops have been in existence rather than
the other way around, and so sometimes people get excited about the
Evergreen project because it’s big numbers, and intellectuals like
Alperovitz and Richard Wolff seem to not be as interested in us because
it’s not glamorous and they can’t point to this giant example, rather
they should point to these 250 smaller examples that have been in
business for a long time. I’m concerned about creating this giant
structure out of a vacuum and hoping for the best. I’d rather build in
areas that already have something and put resources in areas where
people have done it themselves”

Aside from the high overhead, the involvement of more conventional,
hierarchical legacy institutions more generally pushed the new
cooperatives towards a conventional corporate or bureaucratic model.

When I brought the question to Dave he was more sceptical, partly, he
said, because “I belong to an anarchist tradition” where nationalism is
regarded at best with unease — part of his concern about the Evergreen
model’s anchor institutions is that “though some of them are public,
like the university, they’re run like a corporation, even if they’re an
industry where profit should not be the primary role…education,
healthcare — it IS in the United States.”

Jackson. The Jackson Plan was a community development
initiative in Jackson, Mississippi, growing out of
decades of previous activism by the New Afrikan People’s Organization
and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. In the 1970s the Detroit-based
Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika, which grew out of
the New Afrikan Independence Movement, purchased land to settle in
Mississippi. Former Jackson mayer Chokwe Lumumba was part of that
project. Its slogan was “Free the Land.”

That slogan and the idea of self-determination converge into the
agrarian question as Fanon and Cabral framed it – land as the
irreducible basis for a people to control their lives and take hold of
society’s productive forces, alongside the need not merely for juridical
ownership but political control over that land.

In 1984, Lumumba broke with the NAIM to found the New Afrikan People’s
Organization, which argued land “constitutes the material basis upon
which we can exercise our collective will.” It went on to establish the
Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) as its wing for political action
and mass work. Multiple streams then came together into Cooperation
Jackson. First was the Jackson branch of the MXGM. It did base work in
the area. It built up youth programs and helped hundreds of young people
to make it to college….

Based on their assessment that a coherent developmental alternative and
a path to reach it was needed, MXGM drafted the Jackson-Kush

The MXGM elaborates on the more recent history of the movement of the
Jackson Plan, which

is being spearheaded by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and the
Jackson People’s Assembly….

The Jackson Plan has many local, national and international antecedents,
but it is fundamentally the brain child of the Jackson People’s
Assembly. The Jackson People’s Assembly is the product of the
Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition (MSDRC) that was spearheaded by
MXGM in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of Gulf
Coast communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas. Between
2006 and 2008, this coalition expanded and transformed itself into the
Jackson People’s Assembly. In 2009, MXGM and the People’s Assembly were
able to elect human rights lawyer and MXGM co-founder Chokwe Lumumba to
the Jackson City Council representing Ward 2.

The Three Pillars of the Plan include direct democratic People’s
Assemblies and the support for progressive political candidates. But
most interesting for our purposes is the third pillar,

to build a local Solidarity Economy that links with regional and
national Solidarity Economy networks to advance the struggle for
economic democracy.

Solidarity Economy as a concept describes a process of promoting
cooperative economics that promote social solidarity, mutual aid,
reciprocity, and generosity. It also describes the horizontal and
autonomously driven networking of a range of cooperative institutions
that support and promote the aforementioned values ranging from worker
cooperatives to informal affinity based neighborhood bartering networks.

Our conception of Solidarity Economy is inspired by the Mondragon
Federation of Cooperative Enterprises based in the Basque region of
Spain but also draws from the best practices and experiences of the
Solidarity Economy and other alternative economic initiatives already in
motion in Latin America and the United States. We are working to make
these practices and experiences relevant in Jackson and to make greater
links with existing cooperative institutions in the state and the region
that help broaden their reach and impact on the local and regional
economy. The Solidarity Economy practices and institutions that MXGM is
working to build in Jackson include:

  • Building a network of cooperative and mutually reinforcing
    enterprises and institutions, specifically worker, consumer, and
    housing cooperatives, and community development credit unions as the
    foundation of our local Solidarity Economy

  • Building sustainable, Green (re)development and Green economy
    networks and enterprises, starting with a Green housing initiative

  • Building a network of local urban farms, regional agricultural
    cooperatives, and farmers markets. Drawing heavily from recent
    experiences in Detroit, we hope to achieve food sovereignty and
    combat obesity and chronic health issues in the state associated with
    limited access to healthy foods and unhealthy food environments

  • Developing local community and conservation land trusts as a primary
    means to begin the process of reconstructing the “Commons” in the
    city and region by decommodifying land and housing i, Louisiana,
    Alabama and Texas.

  • Organizing to reconstruct and extend the Public Sector, particularly
    public finance of community development, to be pursued as a means of
    rebuilding the Public Sector to ensure there is adequate
    infrastructure to provide quality health care, accessible mass
    transportation, and decent, affordable public housing,

Cooperation Jackson’s Kali Akuno explains the
background of the project’s solidarity economy vision in, among other
places, the Mondragon system and Emilia-Romagna’s cooperative economy.

One of my major contributions to that plan was really incorporating the
Solidarity Economy framework within it and contributing what I had
studied from a deep, deep dive into a study of the Mondragon and Emilia
Romangna cooperatives — as well as some of the work that was being done
by that Zapatistas. So, I just really brought that to the fore and tried
to incorporate that within the Jackson-Kush Plan, which eventually wound
up becoming a core component of debate and study within that
organization. As we launched a major phase of that plan’s execution in
2013 with the election of Chokwe Lamumba [sic] to Mayor of Jackson, one
of the main things that we were trying to move and shift as a result of
pursuing that office was changing some of the municipal policies to make
it so that it would be easier for a grassroots communities,
working-class communities, to actually develop cooperatives to make a
contribution towards the local economy, but also to put more direct
control in worker hands. Unfortunately, Chokwe died shortly after, too
soon before we could really execute what we all had in mind in terms of
those policies. But the plan to move forward and to try to execute that
vision, that moved forward and that became Cooperation Jackson.

And as his comments on the original vision for the first Mayor Lumumba’s
campaign suggest, the electoral movement was intended to empower the
creative work of ordinary people already engaged in building the
solidarity economy — not to build it for them.

A core element that cooperatives speak to are questions of self-reliance
and self-sufficiency, particularly regarding historically oppressed,
exploited, and marginalized communities. In order to change that
situation it has to start from within, and with the resources and the
talents that you yourself possess. We’ve got to be very clear that there
are no external saviors coming to save the day. And that our liberation
is in our own hands ultimately….

Another key thing that I will say is that the solidarity economy is not
something that we have to invent or parachute or convince people of.
Given the vast majority of people’s economic situation, if there wasn’t
some level of solidarity that people were practicing — particularly with
their families and their extended loved ones — many people just wouldn’t
make it through the day or the month. You know, paying bills, eating,
providing child care support to each other. There’s a great deal of
solidarity that already exists as an informal solidarity economy, and
what we’re just trying to do in many respects is to build on that
foundation and move it from an informal set of practices and
relationships to a more formal set of practices and relationships, and
create a dynamic wherein, you know, people can exchange, trade, and
barter, and still share with each other across familial relationships or
just basic communal relationships. And trying to scale that up so that
we can do time-banking, perhaps throughout the city in the next couple
of years. We’re also working on an alternative currency. You know, so
this organic composition already exists in that community and our
challenge is how to connect it much more explicitly to the formal

Akuno “envisions an entire economy of co-ops working together, and
running independently from the dominant economy — co-op farms selling to
co-op restaurants, co-op dry cleaners taking out loans from co-op

His dream is to create a “sister network” of co-ops across the globe,
all working with one another to create an economy parallel to the one we
live in but governed by different rules.

“It’s not just about surviving,” he emphasizes. “We want to build a new
economy, a new society. In order to do that, you have to survive, but
you have to also grow and reach out and change people’s minds in the

Cooperation Jackson aims to become the nucleus of a worker-owned and
-controlled local economy for the black population, outside the
capitalist system. It currently operates an “urban farming
collaborative” called Freedom Farms, and the Chokwe Lumumba Center for
Economic Democracy and Development, “a community center and
small-businesses incubator.” It’s currently in process of building a
cafe that includes a catering business. It’s buying up land —
twenty-five lots so far, with the intention of buying fifty more — in
order to create a community land trust. In addition, it’s crowdfunding
“a production and fabrication center — essentially a flexibly configured
factory that can be used for small-time manufacturing.”

Max Ajl elaborates on the way the various components of the solidarity
economy are intended to work together:

These principles take on programmatic form in the dense network which
Cooperation Jackson is trying to build. First, the local cooperatives.
Second, a cooperative incubator. Third, a cooperative school and
training center. And fourth, a cooperative union and bank. This last
component is crucial, because capital is necessary for systematic and
harmonized development. We are accustomed to thinking of capital as the
monopoly of the wealthy. This has truth. But capital also exists in
banks, and banks have capital in part because they have depositors.
Credit unions need not use their capital for stock-market speculation or
bond purchases. They could equally use it to support communities and
municipalities like Jackson trying to take control of their productive
future. Although, it must be noted that that [sic] such a stage can only
be intermediary, given that currency itself is a tool of capitalist
domination. Hence part of Cooperation Jackson’s pedagogy involves
discussion and interest in alternative- or crypto-currencies, as
technologies useful for breaking with that tool of

And as Kali Akuno explains, Cooperation Jackson’s project of building a
local solidarity economy is meant to be undertaken in parallel with, and
solidarity with, a number of other struggles providing political cover
and creating space for each other:

Organizing is the answer [for dealing with betrayal and dismissal of the
Green New Deal from centrist Democrats like Pelosi]. We have to organize
a strong independent base to advance the transition program we need, be
it the Green New Deal or anything similar. Without that this epic issue
will be held hostage to forces seeking to maintain the capitalist system
as is, whether it be the Democratic or Republican variety of this
worldview and its articulated interests. And we have to build this base
to advance two strategies at once.

One, we have to organize a mass base within the working class,
particularly around the job-focused side of the just transition
framework. We have to articulate a program that concretely addresses the
class’s immediate and medium-term need for jobs and stable income around
the expansion of existing “green” industries and the development of new
ones, like digital fabrication or what we call community production,
that will enable a comprehensive energy and consumption transition. This
will have to be a social movement first and foremost, which understands
electoral politics as a tactic and not an end unto itself.

For our part, one of the critical initiatives that we as Cooperation
Jackson are arguing for is the development of a broad “union-co-op”
alliance that would seek to unite the three forms of the organized
working-class movement in this country — i.e. the trade unions, workers’
centers, and worker cooperatives — around what we call a “build and
fight” program. It would seek to construct new worker-owned and
self-managed enterprises rooted in sustainable methods of production on
the build side and to enact various means of appropriation of the
existing enterprises by their workers on the fight side, which would
transition these industries into sustainable practices (or in some cases
phase them out entirely). We think this is a means towards building the
independence that is required to dictate the terms of the political
struggle in the electoral arena.

The second strategy calls for mass civil disobedience, as we witnessed
at Standing Rock. We have to recognize that the neoliberal and
reactionary forces at the heart of the Democratic Party are only part of
the problem. The main enemy is and will be the petrochemical
transnationals. We have to weaken their ability to extract, and this
entails stopping new exploration and production initiatives. This is
critical because it will weaken their power, particularly their
financial power, which is at the heart of their lobbying power. If we
can break that, we won’t have to worry about the

Following the death of Chokwe Lumumba his son, also named Chokwe, was
elected mayor on June 7, 2017 with 93% of the vote.

Matthew Thompson characterizes Cooperation Jackson, despite some
municipal government involvement under both Mayors Lumumba, as an
“autonomist” municipalist movement focused primarily on social and
economic counter-institutions rather than on the kinds of state-centered
initiatives in Cleveland and Preston. It has been

moving progressively away from engaging with the local state towards
building autonomous alternatives. Activists describe their approach as
‘dual power’ – “building autonomous power outside of the realm of the
state” in the form of popular assemblies and a “broader platform for a
restoration of the ‘commons’” whilst only engaging electoral politics on
a limited scale in order to build radical voting blocs and elect
candidates drawn from the ranks of the assemblies themselves. Wielding
the power of formal municipal institutions is a means to incubate and
protect the development of a democratic solidarity economy from
racist-state-capitalist incursion. Elected in 2013, the radical
socialist mayor Chokwe Lumumba embodied dual power in his pledge to make
Jackson the “most radical city on the planet” and to materialise
Cooperation Jackson’s aim: to socialise the means of production and
democratise society. Since his untimely death in 2014, and his son’s
election with a weaker mandate, Cooperation Jackson has turned away from
electoral politics to focus on socioeconomic autonomy and Black
self-determination. Economic autonomy, ecological self-sufficiency and
non-monetary exchange are being pursued through interconnected
experiments in alternative currencies, time banking, food growing,
renewable energy, circular waste reuse, community-owned housing, digital
fabrication laboratories, makerspaces and worker-owned co-ops. The
co-ops are organised as a federation democratically accountable to the
community. A cooperative school provides political education; a
community loan fund patient capital. All developed on land owned by a
community land trust, reinvesting surpluses to create (relatively)
autonomous circuits of value.

On the downside, Lumumba’s freedom of action has been limited by
preemptive action from the Republican-controlled state government — at
the same time as a growing split between Cooperation Jackson and
Lumumba’s electoral arm.

…[T]wo years into his administration, the relationship between city
hall and the grassroots has soured. Without an alliance with city hall,
hopes of leveraging city procurement, labor law, or other aspects of
municipal power to build cooperatives have diminished. The rupture has
been made worse by an exodus of grassroots activists to city hall.
According to Themba-Nixon, “Virtually all the organizers working on the
People’s Assembly were called into service for the administration with
MXGM, even recruiting organizers and staff from outside Mississippi.”

The movement is coming under pressure from the state as well. The state
legislature, dominated by Republicans, maneuvers to put municipal
resources that bring money into the city, such as the airport and the
city zoo, under state authority….

With a city government hemmed in by state authorities and starved for
cash, and a split between elected reformers and the grassroots, today
Cooperation Jackson focuses on the economic self-determination aspect of
the Jackson-Kush Plan. Following the cooperative model of Mondragón in
Spain, it aims to create a federation of workers’ cooperatives.
Cooperation Jackson operates at the same time as a vehicle for political
education, and a structure enabling administrative, financial, and
material solidarity.

In a vision evocative of Afrofuturism, Cooperation Jackson hopes to help
Jackson residents fabricate their own affordable housing at a “FABLAB”
outfitted with 3D printers, computer numerical control machines, and
other tools of what some call the fifth industrial revolution. It has
also launched Freedom Farm Cooperatives, aiming to realize food
sovereignty through urban farming. Cooperation Jackson is also working
to buy property to create a community land trust to secure affordable
housing and to prevent gentrification in West Jackson, currently one of
the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

The movement in Jackson faces unrelenting pressure from the
white-supremacist Mississippi power structure. The Lumumba
administration itself is reckoning with the limitations of municipal
power, at times caving to austerity imperatives — for example, through
the regressive sales tax to pay for infrastructure improvements. And in
2018 the city ended up in the uncomfortable role of cutting off water
for households that cannot pay their bills. The split between the
Lumumba administration and Cooperation Jackson has weakened the
movement, depriving solidarity economy initiatives of the lever of
municipal government power. Cooperation Jackson is working through the
difficulties of inventing new forms of social relations under the
constant pressure of capitalism and racism; many obstacles to achieving
the movement’s more ambitious goals remain ahead.

Akuno himself has sometimes obliquely hinted at this split:

The Jackson Plan is a major initiative in the effort to deepen democracy
and build a solidarity economy. To the extent that this plan calls for a
critical engagement with electoral politics, we take heed of the lesson
and warning issued by Guyanese professor Walter Rodney:

‘I say this very deliberately. Not even those of us who stand on this
platform can tell you that the remedy in Guyana is that a new set of
people must take over from an old set of people and we will run the
system better. That is no solution to the problems of Guyana. The
problem is much more fundamental than that.

‘We are saying that working-class people will get justice only when they
take the initiative. When they move themselves. Nobody else can give
[freedom] as a gift. Someone who comes claiming to be a liberator is
either deluding himself or he is trying to delude the people…. So long
as we suffer from a warped concept of politics as being leadership,
we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.’

We draw two lessons from this statement and the history associated with
it. One, that to engage is to not be deluded about the discriminatory
and hierarchal nature of the system, nor deny its proven ability to
contain and absorb resistance, or to reduce radicals to managers of the
status quo. We have to fight in every arena to create democratic space
to allow oppressed and exploited people the freedom and autonomy to
ultimately empower themselves.

The second lesson regards leadership. MXGM believes that leadership is
necessary to help stimulate, motivate, and educate struggling people,
but that leaders and leadership are no substitutes for the people
themselves, nor for an autonomous mass movement with distributed or
horizontal leadership.

So has Cooperation Jackson as an organization:

We, Cooperation Jackson, were not largely responsible for the election
of the current administration in Jackson, many of our members were part
of the broad coalition that helped the administration get elected. This
is critical for everyone to note and learn from in regards to
understanding municipal politics and power.

And Akuno, elsewhere, expressed himself much less obliquely:

…[W]hile I disagree with many of the policy and programmatic
priorities articulated by the Mayoral administration of Chokwe Antar
Lumumba thus far, as well as Mayor Lumumba’s increasing public alignment
with the Democratic Party (particularly the so-called Bernie wing of the
Party), I have a vested interest in doing all that I can to help the
Lumumba administration succeed. I am committed to struggling with the
administration internally where possible and externally when necessary,
to stay the course of pursuing radical social transformation as
articulated in the Jackson-Kush Plan.

…[O]f all the things that the J-K Plan conveys, the component of it
that has far and away drawn the most attention has been its electoral
component. Like it or not, this has been the primary source of
inspiration engendered by this document. Given how the media is focused
in this society, and how power is too often narrowly understood, this
sadly is what the overwhelming majority of people focus on in reference
to the radical work in Jackson. …[T]he electoral component of the
strategy was originally intended to be an adjunct component of a broader
objective, which was to build a transformative, anti-colonial power from
the ground up through the People’s Assembly as an autonomous vehicle of
self-governance that would engage in a developmental process of
socialist construction by building a dynamic social and solidarity
economy on the local level to create new social relations and means of
production (which is the mission of Cooperation Jackson). Building a new
independent political party that would engage in electoral politics, but
not be bound by its pursuits, was just one component of this radical

When me and my comrade Kamau Franklin first conceived of the idea and
advanced the proposal to NAPO and MXGM that Chokwe Lumumba run for mayor
in 2008, our primary objective was to use the campaign to: a) gather
concrete information about who and how many people in Jackson believed
in and would openly support the pursuit of New Afrikan (Black)
self-determination and sovereignty, and b) to use the data gathered from
this social experiment to advance our base building work in the city
(and beyond) to build power. The power we were focused on building was
the enhancement of the capacity of a self-organized community to
collectively exercise its will by transforming the social means to meet
its material and social needs. The focus was on changing social
relationships from below, by moving people to pool their resources,
skills, and intellectual capacities to more effectively utilize what
they have to improve their lives and to struggle to either build or
appropriate the resources (land, capital, and social institutions)
needed to suit this end. It should be noted, that we did not rule out
the notion that Chokwe should win the election, but this was not our
initial focus.

However, in the process of agreeing to pursue this course of action,
comrades in the Jackson chapter (keep in mind that neither I or Kamau
lived in Jackson in 2008) stated that they did not want to engage in a
“symbolic action,” that they wanted to “win,” meaning actually attain
the office…. Given that we had done some preliminary research on the
possibility of winning an election that was favorable, I initially
offered no resistance to this notion. For my part, I went along with
this notion because I thought that we all agreed with the power building
objectives stated above. As it turns out, we did not…. We did not
agree on whether the victory was defined as building power, or winning
and holding office. Or, if the answer was both/and, how would this
advance the liberation of Black people within the US in the short and
midterm? How would this victory support the building of the New Afrikan
Nation, the decolonization of Turtle Island, and the dismantling of the
US government? We moved forward on the basis of assumptions, not on the
basis of concrete clarity. And moving forward on this basis is what has
led us to the impasse that we find ourselves in today….

As a result of this compromise, winning elections became the primary
focus of the “on the ground“ work in Jackson from 2009 on. In practice
this election centered focus has translated into downplaying the
politics of the New Afrikan Independence Movement, limiting public
discussion of the Jackson-Kush Plan, crafting a more “popular” political
platform called the “people’s platform” that orientated itself towards
the restitution of a welfare state as opposed to the construction of
socialism, and making public overtures to appease capital expressed in
statements that “Jackson is open for business” and “we want corporations
to come here and get rich.” All of these moves were made to enable the
candidates to become more “electable.” These actions and orientations
are in contradiction with the focus and pursuits of the original
campaign proposal. This development sadly repeats a time worn pattern of
revolutionaries throughout the world over the past 200 + years who turn
to electoral politics to allegedly transform the system from within, who
along the way get transformed by the system and step by step become
revisionists, reformers, and agents of neo-colonial subjugation and
neo-liberal social destruction.

…For my part, I see electoral politics as a field of struggle that
revolutionaries cannot ignore, given the balance of forces in society as
a whole. But, I don’t think we need to give much of our limited time and
energy towards this pursuit. Rather, I argue that we need to put the
majority of our time and energy into building working class
organizations that are focused on enhancing the productive capacities of
the class in its comprehensive composition (meaning those who are
employed, under employed, structurally unemployable, those who labor in
the fields, and those who labor in prison) and amassing the skills and
resources to transform society and defeat the corrosive powers of

…If anything, without a major course correction, the Lumumba
administration is structurally poised to reenact an “American” version
of the neo-liberal tragedy currently being executed and administered on
the Greek people by Syriza.

The split was further dramatized by the appearance of rival People’s
Assemblies in summer 2020. The original Jackson People’s Assembly was
long-time governance body chaired by Rukia Lumumba, the mayor’s sister.
The Jackson People’s Assembly’s vision for the future, as described by
an official document, is to be incorporated into the formal policy
process as an a sort of officially endorsed open government initiative.
“The current Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (allows) the development of the
People’s Assembly as an autonomous structure that will eventually be an
institution of government that through legislation will be an entity
city government must utilize for community input and engagement in local
government decision-making.” Rukia Lumumba stated that “the basis of the
assembly is actually as a link between the government and the people.”

The Real People’s Assembly, on the other hand, views its relation to JPA
in an adversarial light:

[Jackson finance worker Greg] Griffin said he and Jackson-based lawyer
Adofo Minka, who writes columns for this newspaper, formed a coalition
on June 30. “Out of that coalition, we formed the group that is called
the Real People’s Assembly.”…

Minka made it clear that the RPA is designed as an alternative to the
Lumumba’s approach, explicitly saying so in a document containing its
resolution at the end of the meeting, which Minka shared with the
Jackson Free Press.

“Ordinary people recognize that the original pretense to a movement for
popular assemblies never taught commoners how to be independent from
city government and to take action to govern themselves. Now the process
of popular government as self-directed liberating activity is underway,”
the RPA document said.

The basic concept of both people’s assemblies is a focus on gathering
together to express ideas on the direction the city of Jackson should
go. Both define their end-goal as some form of direct democracy, though
they differ in the definition of what the term means.

For RPA, direct democracy means the people determining what will happen
and taking the initiative themselves to make it so.

For JPA, the goal is to become a legal government entity through future
legislation, achieving the rule of the people and changing government
from within. RPA, in contrast, believes that the government cannot
reform itself and that the people must replace it by direct rule.

Illustrating the difference, Mayor Lumumba and his wife, Ebony, were
part of the July 11 JPA meeting, attended by more than 80 people
virtually. City and administration officials spoke at the Lumumba
assembly, as they often do at length at the traditional people’s

RPA, on the other hand, is committed to excluding the mayor and his
administration’s officials. The leaders are openly critical of the
mayor, with Minka often critiquing Lumumba’s decisions, particularly on
police violence and allowing the Jackson Police Department to work with
the federal government on Project Eject.

The organizers also do not believe it is possible for the government, or
those close to it, to organize a real people’s assembly.

“Unlike a city council or PTA meeting, the RPA was not reported to by
elite administrators or politicians, leaving a few minutes for ordinary
people to express themselves and be ignored,” the RPA resolution
document stated. “The meeting established an overwhelming consensus that
the RPA is not a place where professional politicians, police or
surveillance operatives in uniform or plain clothes, are welcome….”

That is, what the newer RPA prohibits is embedded in the traditional JPA

“The Real People’s Assembly is not associated with the Jacks [sic]
People’s Assembly associated with Mayor Lumumba’s administration, the
Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the People’s Advocacy Institute. It is
an independent body that will act independent of the government and will
not be subordinated to any government officials,” Minka told the Jackson
Free Press.

“It is looking to establish its own independent self-government so that
ordinary people can arrive on their own authority and control their own
political, economic, social ecology and judicial affairs within the city
of Jackson….”

Minka says RPA aims to organize and place “ordinary people at the center
of what we do and people being able to arrive at their own authority,
instead of giving their authority to a government that is rooted in
hierarchy and domination.”

Probably the most realistic approach is to view the two assemblies as
complementary tracks of the sort of dual strategy examined in Chapter
Eight. The RPA is the primary axis of self-organization both for the
task of actually constructing the new society within the shell of the
old, and for orchestrating pressure on the municipal government from
outside. The JPA plays a secondary role, in taking advantage of whatever
limited opportunity is presented for direct participatory governance,
and shifting the government in a Partner State direction through direct
engagement. The important thing is to see the secondary track for what
it is, and under no circumstances authorize those participating in JPA
to bind those engaged in the primary action of counter-institution
building in any way.

In any case the damage from this split has been mitigated by the fact
that Akuno and Cooperation Jackson from the beginning saw electoral
politics, not as the primary driver for implementing their vision, but
as a way of opening up opportunities for initiatives undertaken from the
outside. So the disaffection between the electoral and social wings of
the movement has not sucked the life out of the latter the way the
Syriza government did the Syntagma movement in Greece.

In an inversion of the civil rights movement strategy of leveraging the
federal government against local white-supremacist elites, Jackson
activists see municipal government as a tactical space where their
movement can gain strength. The strategy, in the words of Kali Akuno,
cofounder and director of Cooperation Jackson, is to use the power of
city hall to help create the base for a social and solidarity economy —
by ensuring a stable market and access to capital for workers’
cooperatives through city contracts and credit unions, and by opening
access to expertise, training, and other resources.

Seattle. The Neighborhood Action Coalition (NAC) was
set up following Trump’s election, with a focus on
protecting marginalized groups against hate crimes. Unlike the Occupy
movement with its city-wide general assemblies, NAC has chapters in each
city district.

Each neighborhood chapter is empowered to select its own activities and
many groups have evolved through door-to-door listening campaigns.The
NAC is creating new forms of encounter between citizens and city

The NAC’s Nikkita Oliver, a Black Lives Matters activist, ran for mayor
this year (unsuccessfully) on a platform of radical government

Portland. Portland Assembly enrolls new members in
existing neighborhood associations. “They are currently
working to create a citywide, pro-homeless coalition; they advocate for
radical reformation of the police.” PA was in the news recently when
members in Black Bloc attire obtained asphalt and fixed neglected
potholes themselves.

Kitchener. Inspired by ecological economist Tim Jackson, the
Kitchener, Ontario economic development commissioner launched the “Make
It Kitchener” campaign to “help transition Kitchener into a new economic

Manufacturing was previously a main source of employment, but Kitchener
lost out to Hamilton, Ontario as a primary place for investors. As the
manufacturing companies closed, and the sister-city of Waterloo, Ontario
began devoting immense resources into becoming a hub for tech
industries, Kitchener was struggling to find its innovative place. Make
It Kitchener is the city’s attempt to give citizens something new to buy
into at a municipal level. The city invested in programs to reskill
those that had lost their manufacturing jobs to join new employment
opportunities, funded artists and makers in residence at any local
business to boost local sales, paid for maker activity nights at local
libraries such as repair cafes, helped support the development of local
maker spaces, and began giving out up to $20 000 CND to any group of
community members that had a small project that would improve their
local areas.

Because of the city’s commitment to a community-oriented, citizen
empowering, and local production initiative, Kitchener is now a hub in
Ontario for local economic development. The municipality saw a
significant reduction in waste, revitalized the local theatre, is a hub
for various kinds of start-ups (food, tech, artists), has a vibrant
sharing economy with tool libraries and sharing services, and has
successfully revitalized the suburbs by giving community grants. The
city has also repeatedly refused to allow significant gentrification of
their downtown core, rejecting a number of property-led development
proposals oriented purely to return on capital investment. Kitchener is
an example for how municipalities can implement maker principles to help
fund citizen innovation. Kitchener is now one of the top 25 start-up
ecosystems in the world and the start-up density is second only to
Silicon Valley. In under 20 years, Kitchener created over 30 000 tech
jobs used to improve systems across the world.

Montréal. In the 1960s, according to Aaron Vansintjan and Donald
Cuccioletta, citizens there “started up groupes populaires like
citizens’ committees, collective childcare, cooperative housing and
businesses, community-run clinics, neighborhood food cooperatives — the
first of their kind in Quebec and Canada — and political action

Residents of the Milton-Parc neighborhood organized what became the
largest housing cooperative in North America. Citizens’ assemblies and
tenant associations sprang up in different neighborhoods to coordinate
these efforts. By the end of the 1960s, Montreal’s residents had built
an ecosystem of mutual aid organizations by and for the working class.

At the same time, union leaders, recognizing the immense power coming
from the quartiers populaires (people’s neighborhoods), began to see
the need for a “second front” (deuxiéme front) beyond traditional
labor organizing. In 1969, the FRAP (Political Action Front) — a
coalition of grassroots municipal activists and autonomous political
action committees based in the neighborhoods — formed a party and ran
for city elections.

Its progress was derailed to some extent by the Quebec independence
movement and a kidnapping campaign by some of its hardliners, followed
by military occupation of Montréal, the arrest of many FRAP leaders, and
its failure in the elections. Nevertheless a general strike of 300,000
workers organized by Quebec unions did a lot to maintain the radical
tradition of the city’s neighborhoods — and politicians’ fear of it.

Through the ‘80s the expansion of the welfare state and its cooptation
of autonomous social movements and institutions had done more than
anything to sap the radical tradition of strength.

By the 1990s, the Quebec government had helped create a class of
professional “community organizers” who spent much of their time
competing for government funding, while having little incentive to help
build up people-power.

Fast forward to 2012, in the aftermath of the 2011 horizontalist
movements, when the Montréal municipalist movement took on new life on
the model of M15 and the post-M15 municipal movements in Spain.

…[T]he massive student strike — the Maple Spring — sought to block
tuition increases imposed by the Liberal government. An estimated
250,000 students from universities and community colleges went on strike
across the province. Students were organized in a leaderless horizontal
confederal model. Ordinary people joined the daily protest marches and
began to self-organize neighborhood-based assemblies, which briefly
confederated before withering away when the movement lost its momentum.

Today, Montréal’s social movements are once again turning toward radical
municipalist action.

In 2018, activists opened Bâtiment 7, a huge self-run autonomous
cooperative center in the working-class area of Pointe Saint-Charles,
the same neighborhood where the first community health clinic was
established in 1968.

Residents of Milton-Parc are organizing a series of conferences on
municipalism and advancing a dual power framework. In response to the
election victory of Projét Montréal, a “progressive” — but largely
neoliberal — municipal party, radicals formed the Montreal Urban Left,
an organization seeking to bring together radical municipal struggles
around the city.

Throughout Montréal, there is a renewed interest in cooperative housing,
and a growing movement for social housing and tenant rights, largely as
a reaction to gentrification. Indeed, the housing movement is today
emerging as the key struggle.

II. Europe

Barcelona and Other Spanish Cities. The new
municipalist movement first appeared in Spain, growing out of M15’s
cross-pollination with several other phenomena. The M15 movement
remained vibrant at the local level, both in building
economic counter-institutions and in municipal politics, despite the
abandonment of its occupation camps in 2011. Despite the triumph of
right-wing parties at a national level, towns and cities all over Spain
have elected local political movements derived from M15, and pursuing a
variety of post-capitalist agendas based on cooperatives and the
commons. As Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel describe it:

In the spring of 2014, spurred on by Podemos’ success in the European
elections, met in el Patio Maravillas, one of Madrid’s most
prominent occupied social centers. “We’re going to win this city,” they
announced. They began organizing, enabling unprecedented levels of
citizen participation and facilitating a common space for previously
unaffiliated and disaggregated political actors. Anyone who agreed with
the basic principles and wanted to be present could propose him or
herself as a candidate on fully
electoral lists.

A month or so earlier, activists from Barcelona launched a manifesto to
invite existing social movements and political organizations to converge
around four fundamental objectives:

  1. Guaranteeing the citizenry’s basic rights and a decent life for all,

  2. Fostering an economy that prioritizes social and environmental

  3. The participative democratization of institutions,

  4. To meet an ethical commitment towards citizens.

The call for convergence was an astounding success, and Guanyem
Barcelona, publicly represented by anti-eviction and right to housing
campaigner Ada Colau, begins its yearlong mutation into Barcelona en
Comú, an “instrumental” electoral coalition comprising a variety of
actors from social movements and anti-establishment political parties
working together to take back the city.

Ignored or decried in the popular media, these coalitions, much like the
15-M and Occupy encampments, replicated themselves in other locales,
forming alliances and swarming around shared values and beliefs. The
process was messy, effervescent and busy. No one had tried this before
and there is no instruction manual; in practice, it can only be written

Against poll expectations, a hostile media, and entrenched political
interests, these parties overwhelmingly won in Spain’s main cities, not
only Madrid and Barcelona, but also in Valencia, A Coruña, Zaragoza, and
Cadiz. Podemos, although a participant in many of these coalitions,
chose to run the regional (as opposed to the city) ballot on their own.
The result? Zero victories in all the places where the citizens’
coalitions had triumphed.

The outcome of the municipal elections was an unprecedented situation,
according to Stefanie Ehmsen and Albert Scharenberg.

For the first time in almost 40 years of Spanish democracy, the
country’s major cities would no longer be ruled by either the Partido
Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), or any of
the other long established political forces, but by new “Municipalist
Confluences” such as Ahora Madrid, Barcelona en Comú, and Cadiz Si Se
Puede, to name just a few.

The municipalist victories reflected their roots in the M15 movement,
according to Troncoso and Utratel:

Spain’s municipalist coalitions were the result of a number of movements
representing changes in cultures, mindsets and relations to power. The
most notable among these is 15-M and, unlike Podemos, the coalitions can
be considered its true political byproducts. Prior to the 2014–2015
electoral cycle, 15-M had also developed strong transversal relations
with movements around housing, public health and education and culture.
Known as “las mareas,” or “citizen’s tides,” these were characterized
by self-organized protests and capacity building that, although
inclusive of traditional actors such as labour unions and political
parties, were truly multi-constituent in nature. For example, the public
health marea would include healthcare professionals, patients, civil
workers, health reformers, hospital staff, specific disease-focused
associations and help groups, etc., as well as all supporters of the
public health service. 15-M itself was also a product of already
existing tendencies, with people who had been working in digital
activism, free culture, de-growth, the commons and a host of other

Beyond their local concerns and trans-local alliances, all the
municipalist platforms have their eye on the transnational dimension in
order to form a network of “Rebel Cities.”

News of Colau’s election was widely accompanied by a photo from 2013 of
her being hauled away by police during the occupation of a Barcelona
bank that was foreclosing on homes.

Barcelona En Comú‘s first order of business was to fight the
gentrification that was driving up rents and destroying old
neighborhoods. As part of an attempt to stop outside investors and
speculators from buying up local real estate for development and
evicting tenants, Colau put a freeze on further construction of hotels
and other tourist accommodations.

Barcelona En Comú is limited internally by the fact that it
controls only 11 of 44 city council seats. At the same time, it
is the political arm of a large social economy movement outside the
government, and is involved not only in conventional policy initiatives
but also a wide variety of quasi-official initiatives in collaboration
with activists in civil society.

Besides fostering greater participation in governance, Barcelona En Comú
hopes to fortify and expand what it calls the “commons collaborative
economy” – the cooperatives, commons and neighborhood projects that
comprise a remarkable 10% of the city economy through 1,300 ventures.

For example, there is the impressive Guifi.net, a broadband
telecommunications network that is managed as a commons for the benefit
of ordinary Internet users and small businesses. The system provides
welcome competition to the giant Telefónica by providing affordable
Internet access through more than 32,000 active wifi nodes.

The city is also home to Som Energia Coop, the first renewable energy
coop in Catalunya. It both resells energy bought from the market and is
developing its own renewable energy projects – wind turbines, solar
panels, biogas plants – to produce energy for its members.

Barcelona En Comú realizes that boosting that commons collaborative
economy is an act of co-creation with commoners, not a government
project alone. So the city has established new systems to open and
expand new dialogues. There is a group council called BarCola, for
example, which convenes leading players in the collaborative economy and
commons-based peer production to assess the progress of this sector and
recommend helpful policies. There is also an open meetup called
Procomuns.net, and Decim.Barcelona (Decide Barcelona), a web platform
for public deliberation and decision-making.

It remains to be seen how these bodies will evolve, but their clear
purpose is to strengthen the commons collaborative economy as a
self-aware, active sector of the city’s life. The administration is
exploring such ideas as how existing coops might migrate to open
platforms, and what types of businesses might be good allies or
supporters of the commons collaborative economy.

In March 2016 Barcelona hosted the Commons Collaborative Economies (or
Procomuns) event, which was “focused on commons-oriented peer production
and the collaborative economy. This event centered on producing public
policy proposals and technical guidelines for building software
platforms for collaborative communities….” It issued a series of 122
policy recommendations addressed both to the Barcelona municipal
government and to the European Commission. It also focused on guidelines
for building software platforms to support the collaborative

Barcelona has taken a small step towards the Partner State model with
decidim.barcelona, a public collaborative platform for making policy
proposals. Decidim (“we decide” in Catalan)

allows the public to participate directly in government as they would a
form of social media, and they have had early success. The city council
hosted several organizing events to decide on a strategic plan, and
nearly 40,000 people and 1,500 organizations contributed 10,000

According to Xabier Barandiaran, a project leader, one of the functions
Decidim supports is participatory budgeting, but

there are many others. Decidim makes possible almost all of them. It is
only limited because we are still developing the software and developing
new features. We have learned a lot. We have gathered collective
intelligence from different expert citizens. All hackers, people
interested in their government. We run workshops and open citizen
meetings. We came out with a wider spectrum of possibilities for
participatory democracy, other than participatory budgeting. There are
budgeting pilots in Barcelona. But we did not put all our eggs in that
basket. We felt it was more important to identify the problems to bring
people together to speak about public services.

The city also actively encourages “sharing economy” ventures on a
platform cooperativist model, and is designing a collaborative economy

Two years later, the list of their accomplishments was still more

Even though housing regulation is not city-run, Barcelona en Comú was
able to put a moratorium on new hotel construction, close over 2,000
illegal tourist apartments, sanction Airbnb for illegal establishments,
and even begin to expropriate landlords who keep apartments vacant. They
set up a sustainable public energy company, a publicly owned dental
clinic that offers affordable rates, and the city’s first municipal
LGBTQ center. The city created coop businesses for migrants and refugees
and is attempting to use city procurement to source from cooperatives.
More recently, they enacted a measure requiring that 30 percent of new
buildings be used for affordable housing and created an anti-eviction
unit. The platform also continues to coordinate neighborhood assemblies
and issue-based “commissions” to guide the party’s elected
representatives. Currently, Barcelona en Comú has over 15,000 active
participants in an online forum built to debate and vote on policies. At
the party headquarters, a thermometer chart on the wall tracks the
number of people active in grassroots bodies: before the 2019 election
it was over 1,500.

The Barcelona en Comu success in Barcelona inspired, or was accompanied
by, similar municipalist successes in a number of other Spanish cities.
Unfortunately they suffered electoral setbacks in 2019 everywhere but in
Cadiz, and it has emerged that the relationship between the electoral